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Sing! Idol

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"Hello, I'm Shim Changmin. I'm thirty-one this year … I'm a sous-chef. I love to cook, and I love to sing. I chased my dreams in the kitchen in my twenties. I'll like to try to do that for singing, in my thirties. Thank you."

-- SHIM Changmin (31), chef. 


 "Hi! Nice to meet you. My name is Jung Yunho. I'm a dance teacher and choreographer, and I'm thirty-three years old. I've always loved singing since I was young. I even tried out at SM Entertainment's auditions when I was a teenager, haha! I'll go as far in this journey as you'll allow me! Please do give me your support. Thank you so much!"

-- JUNG Yunho (33), choreographer.


 

Changmin shoves the edges of his mouth into a smile and bows again. "Thank you." 

The assistant producer ("call me Jooyoung, let's talk comfortably") laughs, stepping back together with the cameraman assigned to him. "You're so nervous, Changmin. Loosen up! There's quite a distance to go."

He picks at the cuffs of the shirt he's been dressed in. "Er, yes. Thank you for the advice. I will try."

Jooyoung laughs again and apparently decides to take pity on him. "Come on, Jihwan. We'll be back later for some pick up shots later, Changmin! The head producers will come brief all of you then."

He's left alone again for the third time today and it isn't quite noon yet. It's educational, at least - before today, he didn't know that variety would involve so much waiting.

Taking a deep breath, he exhales. "What am I doing here?"

"Here" at the moment, physically was a pretty-ish sort of a garden 'round the back of a mansion that is his home for the next six months.

"Here" at the moment, metaphorically, feels more and more like a hole he has no idea how to crawl out from. 

A hole that his mentor and boss, Hyunseok, personally shoved him into, barely two months ago. 

"You're the one belting ONE OK ROCK in my kitchen, he said," Changmin mutters, meandering around a bend dotted with colourful flowers he doesn't know the name to. He spends too long a time in the kitchen indoors. "Just because you can make a mean cacio e pepe doesn't mean you shouldn't develop your other skillsets, he said."

He has arrived at the back door. Changmin lets himself in; it's a dinky little mudroom, which opens up quickly into a large kitchen. He looks at the counters longingly, but it's clearly designed to be TV rather than taste friendly. The stove consists of only electric burners. 

It's pretty, though quite cold-looking. Out of place for what is positioned as a home, for a little while. Steel and chrome and a giant kitchen island made out of what looks like a continuous slab of black Italian marble. 

He wonders if it's real, or maybe the production staff just have a very talented props department. 

He dawdles, touching the edges of the cupboards absently, but the whole point of this not-quite-but-rapidly-approaching-a-nightmare was to push him out of his comfort zone, so he exits, heading to the public rooms. 

Changmin skirts the game room and practice rooms. There are voices audible, so clearly some of the others are inside still recording their introductions. 

He only took twenty minutes. But Changmin knows better than think he finished early because he's a hitherto undiscovered variety genius. 

Jooyoung had actually burst out into laughter after his eighth take, "ah, I think that's enough, maybe. We'll be able to work something out of it."

Maybe he'll be so boring, the audience will hate him and he'll be asked to go home. And if it happens that way, maybe Hyunseok won't throw a fit and then an unripe avocado at his head.

Unripe avocados are quite effective as instruments of blunt force trauma. Changmin can attest to it from past experience.

His phone chirps. He pulls it out (he can't believe they'll all have to surrender their phones tomorrow, when actual training starts!) and blinks at the screen. "Is he psychic?"

Don't you dare get yourself disqualified before the competition actually starts, the text reads. I rang your mother that you've joined Sing! Idol

…His mother. 

Aa if on cue, his phone rings. He yelps, phone clattering onto the wooden floorboards with a few thuds. 

Two rooms down, another assistant producer yanks a door open, a horrific scowl on her face. "Quiet on set!" She hisses. "We're rolling!"

"Sorry! Sorry," Changmin absolutely does not squeak, fingers fumbling to grip his phone. She scowls harder and pulls the door shut. 

He looks down. It's still ringing. 

Mother, the screen flashes. 

"Shit shit oh shi-" Changmin whisper-shouts, scurrying to the foyer and up the central staircase, where the rooms are located on the first floor. He darts into the first empty one, pressing his back against the wall. 

It looks like someone's already dropped off their luggage - there's a hoodie draped over the armchair, and a pair of trainers tucked carelessly under the desk. But Changmin just needs a quiet space for a short while.

He takes yet another deep breath and answers. "Mother. Good morning."

"You unfilial little bastard," his mother snaps. 

"It's very good to hear your voice," Changmin says. "What lovely weather we are having."

"You're an oily little shit with no manners," his mother continues. "What a nasty boy you are."

"Yes, I'm doing well too, as you suspect," Changmin continues doggedly. 

"As I suspect! Why do I have to hear from your boss that you are joining SM's new reality TV show!" His mother's voice is climbing registers that Changmin doubts even he can hit. "Do you know who is at SM!" 

"Well, it appears that you know more than me," Changmin detached his phone from his ear and lowers the audio volume. Just in case. "I didn't even know SM Entertainment is the company behind this…. Can we not call it reality TV?"

"You need to get her autograph for me," his mother hisses. "You need to take a picture. A video!"

Changmin is starting to enjoy himself. "Sorry, Mother. That's not possible. We need to surrender our phones over tomorrow. The production team is very strict about potential risk for leaks."

"Infuriating child," her volume rises again, each consonant crisp and sharply enunciated. "I am disowning you and putting your sister as my firstborn on the family register. I hope you get disqualified in the preliminary rounds."

Changmin sniffs. "Well, I too hope your wish comes true. I may be allergic to cameras."

"You better end up in the top five." She growls. "Top three! I'm going to call the broadcast network hotline now. They should do a family visit segment! Those things bring the highest viewership ratings."

Changmin cocks a hip against the chair he's leaning against. "Since when are you a media strategy genius? Mother, listen to your only son. Save your energy. I'm coming home soon anyway."

"Home! What home! You haven't had dinner at my house for months! You're breaking your father's heart."

"You can blame yourself for that," he knows she can hear the smirk in his voice. "Who was it that dumped me to stage at La Cucina at the tender age of fourteen? You set me on that path, Mother."

"Well who was the horrid child who refused his chance to audition at SM Entertainment that year, just because he wanted to play with pots and pans!" His mother's voice is strident and shrill through the phone. Changmin's glad he lowered the volume. "Who was the one who denied me of getting to see Kwon BoA with my own eyes seventeen years ago! "

"Sooyeon?" Changmin suggests the sister closest to him in age, just to hear his mother screech. She doesn't disappoint. 

"You invite me to visit when the producers ask you who you miss the most," she orders. "You are not taking this away from me. I am meeting Kwon BoA. Call me when you get your phone back. Eat more. I saw your picture on Hyunseok's Instagram. You look like a beanpole."

She hangs up.

Stifling a chuckle, Changmin pockets his phone. What a woman. Sometimes, he almost pities his father. But the man is very happily henpecked. 

He turns to leave, but a strangled yelp leaves him at the sight of the smiling stranger leaning against the door frame. "Shit!" 

"You know," the stranger says conversationally, arms crossed, "I have half a mind to report you to the producers for joining with such half-heartedness."

"You- what- I-" Wow, Changmin needs to get a grip on himself. His heart is absolutely not racing because of this (very rude!) stranger's truly fantastic looking biceps, bared in an artfully ragged top. 

The smile widens to a full-blown grin. Okay, maybe Changmin is having a tiny heart attack from the shock and the sight of those white teeth. 

"If you're not serious… Maybe quit now."

Okay, no.

Changmin's heart rate is under control. What an asshole. His face is doing something that makes the other man's smile falter a little. "No one asked for your opinion. But thank you anyway, because I'm not going to sink to your level."

He doesn't expect the other man to chuckle. But that's what happens, as he pushes away from the door. Coming towards him with an outstretched hand, the asshole says, "I'm Jung Yunho."

Changmin straightens to his full height and doesn't take the hand. Good, he has about an inch on him. "Changmin." 

Yunho-the-asshole lowers his hand slightly, and then he sticks it back in Changmin's face. "I'm just kidding! No need to give me the evil eye. You and your mum sound like you have a fun relationship." 

Changmin blinks, and holds the waggling hand gingerly with two fingers and a thumb. Anything to stop it from flapping in his face. What an odd man. “Thank… you? Uh...”

Yunho’s smile wavers again, and then holds. “I mean, you’re kind of in my…”

“Oh.” It’s barely noon, but Changmin feels stupid for the umpeteenth time for the day. “I’m sorry! I needed a place to take the call. I’ll just- yeah-” 

He wrenches open the door (since when was it shut?) and scurries out as fast as he can.

Not as fast as he likes, because Jung-whatever-is-his-name sticks his head out from the room he just left and hollers, “Nice meeting you, Changmin! See you later at the introductions!”

Changmin flees. What a nightmare. 

 

Chapter Text

 

“I’m an artist. It doesn’t matter if it’s yoga or if it’s singing. We’re all telling a story, just in different ways. We all have stories.”

-- Luna PARK (26), yoga instructor. 


“--I just-- kind of-- really miss my mum-- wanna sing--”

-- KIM Yeri (20), student. 


 

It's been a very long day, and the sun is still high in the sky. 

Changmin sits awkwardly in the room he's in, but the producers have said that there shouldn’t be any unpacking yet. He's at a bit of a loss.

He fiddles with his phone, and puts it aside.  

He's thinking perhaps he should venture out to explore again- the garden is nice- when yet another producer pokes her head into the room. 

"Shim Changmin? Hi, I'm Soyoung," she flashes a quick smile. "Good, you haven't unpacked. Come on down to the main living room for orientation!"  

"Ah, okay-" he stands, but she's already flitted off. Before today, he had felt they had to move fast in the kitchen. He once spent 15 hours on his feet without sitting down and his spine felt like it died and was dragged kicking and screaming out of the grave.  

But there is moving fast continuously, and there is monotonous stretches of watching paint dry, then trying to not have whiplash as you are suddenly expected to go from zero to a hundred-twenty.

He passes another crew member who goes "Changmin- main living room! Chop chop! Three minutes!" 

Changmin picks up his pace and enters. Some of the contestants are milling around, and some seem to have already found cliques to bond in. Not everyone seems to be here yet.

Whoever that decorated the living room can't seem to decide if they should go for a modern, elegant aesthetic or just simply "cosy". It gives a bit of an unexpectedly whimsical effect. The colourful bean bags scattered around shouldn't work with linen sofas and Scandinavian decor, but it does. 

Three of the sofas are taken, and there's a bloke half sprawled on a heap of the beanbags. He's either having a seizure or laughing while dancing semi-horizontally. Or both.  

Changmin takes a seat at the fourth sofa, an austere white-and-wood love seat. No sooner has he made himself comfortable than someone sits down next to him quietly.  

He looks over. "Hello." 

It's a male contestant, and he looks so young that Changmin does a double take. Did Hyunseok sign him up for a show for teenagers? Changmin already went through this when he stupidly answered the military draft at the ripe old age of twenty four and ended up in a platoon-full of nineteen year olds. The "hey old man are you running or are you dying" jokes were stale in a matter of weeks. 

The other does a half-bow in their seat. "Hello."

They don't speak. 

After a while, the other shifts, eyes on the rapidly filling room. "I'm… I'm Kyungsoo." 

His voice is deeper than expected. 

"Changmin," Changmin returns easily, but doesn't elaborate. Kyungsoo gives him a grimace that could be a grateful half-smile if he squints. 

The silence is easy until it gets interrupted. A girl squeezes in between them. "Hi," she chirps. "New friends!"

She gets almost matching twitches. "Ohhhhh. Are you both shy? I'm Stephanie, but I've decided my stage name is Tiffany. You can call me Fany."

"We are both sitting at the edge of the room," Changmin returns testily. "What do you think?" 

She blinks, startled. Her head moves back an inch and she narrows her eyes at him. Next to her, Kyungsoo's eyes are wide. He doesn't seem to realise that his mouth is open.  

Changmin stares at her.

Tiffany-Stephanie-whoever-Fany smiles slowly. "You're mean," she decides. "Shy but mean. I like you."

"I don't know you," he volleys to her widening grin. She doesn't answer him, choosing to turn to the wider room. Kyungsoo has half-squashed himself into the arm of the love seat. 

"Amber, Henry, c'mere!" She calls, and yet two others come over. Changmin's head is already spinning from trying to remember all the different names and faces.  

They peer at him and Kyungsoo, as Tiffany slings her arm around each of them. "Team USA," she introduces, to Changmin and Kyungsoo's rapid blinking and Henry's exasperated "technically I am Team Canada". 

"Guys, these two are The Shy Boys - I haven't gotten their names yet-"

"We haven't introduced ourselves yet," Kyungsoo says slowly. Tiffany nods sagely, turning sotto voce to her companions, "the taller one is meaner-" 

Changmin opens his mouth, but a shrill whistle and clap from the middle of the room attracts their attention. They all turn back. 

"Hello beautiful folks! Can I have your attention please!" It's the producer from earlier, Soyoung. Team USA flops down at his and Kyungsoo's feet like overgrown American-bred puppies.  

Changmin looks around. Aside from the row of TV people in front and the frankly terrifying wall of cameras pointed at them, the people scattered over the furniture in the room number eight- ten- fourteen- eighteen- Jesus, twenty. 

Soyoung claps her hands together. Several of the camera men shift and do… things? to their equipment.  

"Hello, hello! Welcome," she crows, "to the inaugural Sing! Idol. We're all very pleased to have all of you here." 

There's a smattering of polite applause and Changmin notices the oddball from earlier- Jung Yunho- sitting on the sofa front and centre and nearest to the camera wall. His gaze is laser-sharp and fixed on Soyoung's face. 

"I'm sure all of you are no stranger to talent competitions," I am, Changmin thinks faintly, Hyunseok only said I needed to go sing in that room with the panelists and nothing about this, "but we at Sing! Idol are doing this at a larger scale than normal-"

Changmin tunes her out and lets his gaze wander, distracted and just slightly overwhelmed.

"- have got talent from China, USA, Canada-" 

Oh, the actual singing show isn't that closed door session , Hyunseok had said. That was the preliminary auditions. But you just need to go stay with them for about six months. It's like the military meets cooking school but with singing. You'll like it.   

"- room, so ladies get their own rooms but gentlemen, you'll have to double up-"

Changmin hasn't even exchanged proper greetings with Amber yet, but he's pretty sure the sharp edge digging into the top of his right foot is her elbow.  

"- meet the three judges tomorrow, but we should-"

He squints. One of the men -boy?- hugging the edge of the room has mauve hair. It's the precise shade of the yam reduction foam he invented for the autumn menu two years ago. 

"-do some icebreakers now!"

Everyone stands. He blinks, and turns to his side. 

Tiffany takes pity on him. "We're playing icebreaker games to get to know everyone! Come along, Shy Boy One."

 

--

 

Changmin feels like he's having a prolonged traumatic flashback to his first day at freshman orientation all those years ago at the university (when he was a puny roundsman and Hyunseok had agreed with his parents that education too was important, so off he went trying to juggle classes with twelve-hour work days). Either that, or the first day of Basic Training in the military.  

They're in a giant circle, all twenty of them. The terrifying wall of cameras hasn't reduced. In fact, some of the cameramen have sprouted smaller, mobile cameras and are positioned closer to them. 

"Right!" Yunho claps hands, eerily similar to the way Soyoung-the-producer did earlier. She's retreated to the foot of the camera wall now, cross-legged on the floor and whispering to a male staff member. 

Changmin is sandwiched in between a really young girl who looks like she belongs more in middle school than this with a half-terrified, half-determined expression on her face; and another older girl with fully bleached blonde hair. Interestingly, Bleached Blonde Older Girl seems to be muttering curses to herself.  

Oddball Yunho has appointed himself as de facto leader -crew? MC?- without any dissenting opinions. There are at least five cameras trained on him and he is unfazed. "Hello friends! Shall we just go 'round the circle and introduce ourselves? Maybe we can say our names, age and profession? As well as one fact about ourselves."

Changmin sees Soyoung nodding in approval and writing something down on a clipboard.  

They start with Yunho, who does a complicated looking hip shimmy and then introduces himself as a urban ballet dance instructor and choreographer with a lifelong interest in singing. They also learn he’s an ardent fan of Michael Jackson. 

"Donghae, thirty-three, I'm first reserve for FC Seoul. I can't drink, I’ll fall asleep." 

"Hyukjae, thirty-three, hip hop dance instructor. I uh… my feet smell." Oh, so beanbag seizure bloke is called Hyukjae. 

A few titters. 

"Seohyun, twenty-eight, voice actress. I like Disney." 

They really sound quite boring, so Changmin thinks not for the first time today, that editors are magic.  

"Taemin, twenty-six, jazz dance instructor. I actually work with Hyukjae and Yunho, and all of us didn't know each other signed up for this! What are the odds, right?" 

"Kyuhyun, thirty-one, lawyer. I'm also a pro-gamer and I like to do Starcraft marathons to the entire discography of Cho Youngpil."

More polite laughter. And on it goes - there is Victoria and Zhou Mi from China, Wendy from Canada whom Henry greeted with whoops of "O Canada!", Chanyeol who raps his introduction to warmer laughter and applause, Luna who performs some crazy bendy yoga and flowed into the dhanurasana pose whilst explaining breathing flow, Minho who gets up and starts to dance some intense military dance march exercise thing, Irene who stands up and bows very correctly before doing a popular girl group dance, and more.

The young girl next to him speaks up. 

She's shaking. "I-I'm Yeri. I'm twenty and I r-really love to sing a-and to e-even b-be here a-and I-I-" 

She bursts into tears. 

There's a brief second of horrified silence. Minho, who is on her other side, doesn't seem to know if he should comfort her or stop her tears via sheer force of will alone.  

Changmin pats his pockets and comes up with a packet of tissues. It's squashed, but it'll have to do. He says very fast and casually loud, "Shim Changmin, thirty-one, I cook. I'm here because my mother wants to meet Kwon BoA."

It does the trick, even though it’s not quite the truth. He slips the tissues into Yeri's shaking fingers and pretends not to see her tears and snot, while everyone else starts good-naturedly arguing about which of the three judges they want to meet more. 

The general consensus is that Kwon BoA, beloved pop icon, one of South Korea's most valuable cultural exports, is The One everyone is madly -and loudly- eager to meet. But the contestants who are clearly more ballad-inclined (Kyuhyun being vehemently one of them) profess a preference for fellow judge Kim Jongkook, who is one of the few ballad belters in the industry with a successful parallel career in variety. 

The dancers, perhaps more out of professional loyalty than anything else, declare themselves supremely pleased to be meeting Shim Jaewon, leading dance choreographer and SM producer, tomorrow. Hyukjae loudly insists to anyone who will listen -mainly Donghae- that him and Jaewon go way back when he had the fortune to intern in the dance practice rooms of SM Entertainment back in '05. 

"Hey fuckers," a voice snaps next to Changmin, drawing a surprised lull in the chaos. It's Bleached Blonde Older Girl. "Shut the fuck up now. I haven't fucking done my introduction yet!" 

Changmin is treated to the hilarious sight of the entire crew wincing as a collective. The resulting explosion of laughter shakes the rafters. Taeyeon -or Bleached Blonde Bitch as she will be called affectionately over the next few months- gets her hand shaken by almost everyone.

 

--

 

All twenty of them get shuffled to collect their luggage and sort out roommate matters not long after that. Changmin gazes enviously after the girls. They have the luxury of having single rooms each. 

The crew makes the men do rock-paper-scissors, and the evening disappears in a whirlwind of shrieking laughter and antics hammed up for the Great Wall of Cameras. 

Changmin finds himself in what will be his bedroom for the next six months with Kyuhyun, the self-professed lover of Starcraft, Cho Yongpil and Kim Jongkook. He reminds himself for the umpteenth time that if he gets himself disqualified, the daunting period of six months shrinks to a rather manageable matter of weeks.

He looks over at Kyuhyun. The other man look as shell-shocked as Changmin feels. Changmin checks the room for cameras before he opens his mouth, but Kyuhyun beats him to it. 

"That was a lot, huh," he laughs weakly. Changmin joins him, and after a while they drift into silence.

He gestures awkwardly between the beds. They're identical, wooden-framed double beds separated by an elongated desk, with two chairs slotted neatly in. On the other sides of the beds are wooden bed stands in a matching wood stain. Clearly the decorator is less confused than they were in the living room, and has decided to go firmly Scandinavian hygge. A minimalist wardrobe (barely more than slats of pale wood) completes the look. "So which one…" 

"I'm ok with either side of the room," Kyuhyun says, fast and simultaneous. They eye each other again.  

"Sometimes I punch people in my sleep. I'm right handed."

"I smuggled in wine so the left side might be better since sunlight won't hit it." They say together again.

Changmin feels his eyebrow raise of his own accord. "Red or white…?"

"Cotê de Beaune, 2003."

"I assume you're referring to the red?"  

Kyuhyun laughs. "Are you fond of Burgundy wines too?"

"I actually prefer the Catalonia reds this year. 2010 is particularly good," Changmin trails off. He can feel an answering smile on his face blossoming in parallel to the grin on Kyuhyun's face. 

The other shifts to go to the left bed. His suitcase is a battered dusty blue Samsonite. "I believe, Shim Changmin, that this will be the start of a very beautiful friendship."

 

--

 

Changmin supposes this is when their training montage starts. 

They meet the three judges the next day, but it's relatively quick (only an hour) and firmly chaperoned by cameras and crew. There’s barely enough time for everyone to gape in awe at BoA, who seems to be warm and beautiful without makeup and utterly terrifying; and be comforted by Kim Jongkook, who is brilliant singing live, and less abrasive whilst more articulate than his belligerent muscle-man variety personality suggests. The dancers have a field day with Shim Jaewon, as Yunho leads them in an impromptu Michael Jackson dance off to the tune of Billie Jean , which quickly segues into a messy rendition of Oppa Oppa, one of the latest hits Shim Jaewon choreographed for two ubiquitous boyband members under SM who decided they wanted to form a dance sub-unit.

Then the three judges are whisked away. 

They need material for the first episode, they're told, whilst the cameramen having a field day over Hyukjae and Donghae reenacting the higher points of Oppa Oppa and sing-yelling that they’ve risen in Tokyo, London and Paris. 

You'll get to meet the three judges again closer to the show's live date, when all of you are more or less trained for the cameras. After that you'll be ready for the judges to pick and sort into three teams that they will coach. Mind the cameras. 

All of them also get their phones confiscated the same day, to the promise of getting them back right after the first episode is recorded and the teasers are released, to prevent potential leaks and exposures. 

Changmin takes what will be the last opportunity in a good while to nag Hyunseok via KakaoTalk about the new seasonal menu he's supposed to be designing for winter and gets only a string of kieuks back in response. 

He drops a text in the family group chat, too, but he doesn't have to worry. His father tells him he's proud that Changmin is challenging himself again, like he did at fourteen. His sisters ask him if he will get to meet the newest SM boy bands and if he'll get them their numbers. His mother overrides all of them by stating once again her order to both meet Kwon BoA and him to eat more now that he doesn't need to graze at the dishes whilst working. 

Most of his other friends don't have any idea that Changmin's lost his mind and signed away the better part of a year of his life away. There are non-disclosure agreements.  

So he just leaves a mass announcement on his SNS that he's taken a contract job on a cruise ship doing something with European fusion cuisine, and he’ll have very limited data access, happy Chuseok in advance everyone- which is more plausible than the reality; and surrenders his phone. 

Changmin feels like he's fallen down the rabbit hole.  

He's just a cook -un sous chef extraordinaire, his inner Hyunseok says prissily- who likes to sing. Who promptly spends the next few weeks with the majority of his time... not singing. 

Do we pick our first song, he asks, only to be told no, training first.

All right, then. Changmin sings Wild Soul in the shower- it has been one of the rock songs on his playlist since he was a rebellious teenager, given a pair of tongs and a pan in hopes of taming him enough for minimal social interaction. 

 

--

 

For the past decade and a half, there has been too many strangers in his life who know his face and goes "oh, so you are Choi Hyunseok's protégé". So Changmin's quite happy his fellow competitors take his "I'm Changmin, I cook" at face value and leave him in a bubble of relative peace.  

After the first few days, he learns that the cameras love the more dramatic ones. Like Yeri who wouldn’t stop crying, and Seohyun who keeps lecturing people prissily on enunciation, and Minho who’s passionate about Every Single Thing, and Taemin who won’t stop stripping.  

It means he doesn’t quite expect it when his bubble gets burst in a way suitably dramatic for the cameras. He can't quite decide if it was genuine or scripted for maximum audience impact.  

They meet Shim Jaewon again, much earlier than their official date for a filmed meeting with the three judges, because he also doubles as their dance consultant and coach. At least for the ones who very much need help - like Changmin, and Kyuhyun, and Kyungsoo, to name a few.  

Changmin knows how to juggle two hot dishes at the stove whilst plating a cold anti-pasto. Have him to do a body wave however, and his body rebels. The writers and assistant producers ask him to try and dance, then watch on in genuine horror as his limbs attempted the army clap. The expressions on the his PD-and-VJ team -Jooyoung and Jihwan- is priceless. 

He’s almost used to them following him around and that comes too with the sad understanding that they’ll probably brief the editor to make sure the footage will be used over and over, in slow motion and probably other horrifying ways, even if he manages to get himself kicked out in the very first episode.

 

--

 

Dance training means the judge-cum-dance-coach gets to speak and to know all of them properly, which he does. 

What is not expected is his double take when he finally notices Changmin, an awkward overgrown weed amongst the sleek and polished rest.

"Oh my god! Is it… It is! Shim Changmin!" Shim (unfortunately no relation) Jaewon crows. "Oh, I really love your craft- I attended the flash fusion pop-up you and Choi Hyunseok did with Lee Yeonbok last year! Damn, that dégustation- the way you guys combine European flavours with traditional Chinese taste notes- sublime! So you sing? Does your mentor know you’re here? Do you dance?" 

From the corner of his eye, Changmin notices the writers -Hyejin and Jaeni- perking up, and Jihwan shifting to get a better mid-shot of him. 

His brain is blank, emptied by the barrage of enthusiasm that turned into rapid-fire questioning. “Uh…” 

“Changmin says he cooks,” supplies Hyukjae, who has proven to be great fun and decent company, even though his plebeian peasant taste buds don’t know the difference between jamón ibérico and prosciutto crudo.

(“But it’s all meat, right?” He asks in confusion as Kyuhyun brays with laughter at Changmin’s expression.)

Jaewon reacts with appropriate flair. He makes certain to showcase his three-quarters profile to the cameras. “He cooks! That’s like saying Messi kicks a ball around a field!”

Everyone present -all of the dancers, come to gape at their idol as well as Kyuhyun and Kyungsoo, a dry-eyed Yeri- make appropriate oohing-and-aahing noises, gazing at him with newfound respect.  

Oddball Yunho smiles at him. His arms are bare again today, in another faded muscle tee. He appears to have a whole collection of them, all with enlarged armholes that show off forbidden flashes of skin whenever he moves. 

Changmin feels his ears warming. To Jooyoung’s great disappointment, Changmin has obstinately refused to blush, even though the assistant producer -shadowed by the ever-present Jihwan- contrives to catch him in interesting scenarios. Just yesterday he had opened the door to Changmin and Kyuhyun’s room without preamble early in the morning. Unluckily for him, they were both lucid, sober and dressed.

But Changmin’s ears keep giving him away. He wonders crossly if he should have grown his hair to cover the reddening tips, before joining this madhouse.

“Yeah,” Jaewon says, kissing his fingers cheesily, “like that. Now we just need to make all of you dance as well as Changmin cooks. We just need to make all of you into Idols.”

 

--

 

They make -the contestants beg and all five assistant producers threaten- him make dinner that night. Six cameras, both roving and fixed, follow his every movement.

Discretion is the better part of valour, so Changmin had thought to outwit the producers by agreeing to the directive and then issuing innocent requests for horridly specific ingredients like salt cod, bolets and the like.  

Somehow, magically, the production team found all the ingredients required for a Catalan tapas feast. So Changmin finds himself making dinner, with at least twenty-five pairs of eyes fixed on him. 

This, at least, he’s familiar with. 

Changmin’s been away from Hyunseok’s kitchen for three weeks. That’s three weeks of eating catered meals; too-salty kimchi jjigae and clearly canned miyeok guk. Three weeks of editing the autumn specials in his head over and over again, putting in and taking out seasonal ingredients and diversifying sauces. 

Perhaps he may have been slightly pent up. 

He makes enough to feed fifty people.  

There’s so much food even after the initial feeding frenzy that Changhwan, yet another assistant producer, rings the executive producers to pop down to the Sing! Idol mansion to grab a bite. 

“This tastes really really good and also very expensive,” Zhou Mi, the publicist from China with longer legs than Changmin and a lovely tenor voice, allows. It’s the first time anyone has spoken since they fell on the pa amb tomàquet and buñuelos de bacalao and more like a horde of starving animals nearly an hour ago. Even the cameramen have set down their mobile cameras. 

Changmin wipes down the counters. He’s grazed, so he isn’t eating with them. 

The ladies giggle. Amber, with her usual forthrightness, pokes at the last forlorn slice of patatas bravas, and pretends her fork isn’t already embedded in the potato and sneakily dragging it towards her. “I think we just ate a five hundred dollar bill kind of meal. And I mean American dollars.”  

“Thousand dollar,” Victoria volunteers. 

“What a shame we had such a brilliant feast without wine,” Kyuhyun says, sending Changmin a discreet wink. Chanyeol makes a muffled sound around his pulpo gallego to convey both his discontent and agreement.  

“No, no,” Irene insists, leaning over to prod Changmin’s arm. He startles, in the middle of scrubbing at the burners, without looking at anyone. “I think it costs way more than that. Changmin? How much would be the bill if we ate at your restaurant?”

“It isn’t my restaurant,” Changmin says. The goat cheese’s left a bit of stain on the side of the stove. He scrubs harder. 

“It as good as is,” Luna says, savouring her coca. “I Googled you. There’s a lot of articles about you in the past decade talking about how you are a rising star in Choi Hyunseok’s kitchens at La Cucina, then Elbon The Table. And now Choidot. And your restaurant is reservation-basis only. There is a six month long waiting list.”

A beat, then - 

“Well, now it just depends if Changmin sings as well as he cooks.” Seohyun sniffs. Her morcilla pintxos is untouched. “Or have you all forgotten we are all here for a singing competition?” 

She looks around at a sea of startled eyes. “Well, it’s true! This isn’t Baek Jongwon’s K Chef Battlefield. Maybe,” Changmin knows she’s aware of the cameras, but she forges ahead anyway, “maybe Changmin should have gone to join that instead of Sing! Idol, then!”  

No one else says anything, so Wendy’s muttered “ohhhhh no she didn’t” is perfectly audible and probably picked up by all of the mics and still-rolling cameras.  

“I think,” Yunho says, serene as Seohyun whips around to look at him. She’s looking a little scared, now. “I think we’re all very thankful that Changmin actually went to the trouble of making us an amazing dinner. Especially when this is a singing and not a food competition, and he needn’t have bothered.”

This sets off a chorus of "thank you"s, and the crew take it as their cue to start packing the equipment, hurriedly smoothing over the awkwardness. The writers Hyejin and Jaeni’s eyes are both focused on Seohyun however, and Jaeni is scribbling notes whilst talking in too-low tones to Hyejin. 

Changmin turns back to wiping down the counters. His temple itches though, so he looks up again despite himself. 

Oddball Yunho braces his chin with both hands and beams at Changmin. His gaze is very direct and very bright. Changmin swallows, shifting his own gaze to the left of Yunho’s ear. 

 

--

 

Basic vocal assessment starts and it’s a mess. Changmin’s a mess. His voice, according to the trainer, a very strict Mister Jeong, is a Mess

“Your vocal register is decent,” he intones, whilst Changmin lies on the floor and tries not to feel like he’s run a marathon. He’s done nothing but sing scales and arpeggios in the past hour. “And your head voice is stable, for someone who was self taught. I think with practice, we can push your upper register even higher than what you have right now. But your lower register is a mess! For someone who can sustain a C6 for thirteen seconds, your low and mid-octaves are barely stable. Do you only breathe when you sing high?”

He’s made to get up and immediately his slouch is taken to task. “And your posture! Really, it’s a wonder you haven’t injured yourself. Stand straight! Stop standing like you are ashamed of your height!”

Changmin blinks at the ceiling lights and tries not to die. “I- uh,” his tongue is too thick. “Used to looking down. I cook.”

“Ah,” Mister Jeong is undaunted. “Well, you’re not cooking now, are you? Look up and look straight! Look alive! From the top, once more!”

 

-- 

 

The others are also put through their paces as well, even though some of them are clearly more polished- Seohyun, Kyungsoo, Taeyeon, Wendy and surprisingly, Kyuhyun are the crème of the singing crop. 

Some of them have a lot more experience in the whole singing and dancing she-bang; Henry's a music producer and Yunho has choreographed and even rearranged music for underground hip-hop and urban dance groups. Chanyeol has recorded demos. Taeyeon is arguably the most seasoned of them all, because she performs six nights a week at a smattering of Seoul's downtown pubs.

But at least Changmin isn't alone in the self-taught arena. He has Donghae, Minho, Luna, Kyungsoo and Amber to keep him company, people who love singing as an escape from their professional lives. 

Everyone learns from the trainers and coaches the production team has arranged for them. Taemin laughingly calls this training period "idol boot camp, if idols start in their twenties instead of their teens". 

The first time Changmin hears Kyuhyun sing is a divine revelation. It’s over a bottle, open and breathing red; and Kyuhyun goes from casually humming then properly singing This Is the Moment from Jekyll and Hyde.  

As the last note quivers in the air between them, Changmin tries hard to close his mouth. He doesn’t quite succeed.  

He doesn’t say anything for so long that Kyuhyun fidgets. “I had quite a few years of vocal classes- but-”

“Your voice,” Changmin says slowly, “is like a soufflé. It’s light and fluffy and pretty and it melts on your tongue and it’s a bitch and half to bake, but fuck me it is such a treat to eat.”

Kyuhyun pauses with his glass halfway to his lips. “Did you just… say… you want to… eat my voice?” 

Changmin drains his glass. “I…”

“Yeah, okay,” Kyuhyun’s grinning now, and Changmin has a split second of thought how his opponents at court must be terrified at that grin and all that teeth bearing down on them. “Did you or did you not just compare my voice to a dessert? Did you or did you not say you want to eat it?”

Changmin sweats. “Well, not exactly…”

“It’s a yes or no question,” Kyuhyun pours another glass, clearly enjoying himself. It’s midnight and they have more dance training tomorrow but wine is wine. “Your answer, Chef Shim.”

“I also called your voice a bitch and a half to bake,” and then they’re both laughing hard, half-drunk bottle nearly overturned. Kyuhyun snickers, “I can’t believe you just wax lyrical over my voice!”

When they settle down, Changmin tilts his glass towards Kyuhyun in a semblance of a toast. “I think you’ll win this competition, Kyu.”

“Nah,” Kyuhyun’s smirk is self-deprecating. “I know I sing like an angel. But I can’t dance nor rap for shit.” 

 

--

 

Nearly six weeks in. Changmin can safely say he still can’t dance, but at least he gets to sing actual songs during vocal assessment now. They’re finally deemed ready to be filmed formally for their first (!!) challenge, being chosen by the judges and sorted into the three teams, for their actual Sing! Idol journey. 

The worst sort of news gets sprung on them; again, perhaps for maximum dramatic impact. Changmin and the rest of the Sing! Idol twenty learns that they have to sing their first song in a closed door session, with only forty eight hours' worth of notice from the actual recording. 

At the sound of that, Yeri bursts into a new round of tears and Kyungsoo gets up to slowly walk out of the room. He’s barely 'round the door before he starts to sing the ballad they’ve all already heard him practice over and over again in the past month and a half.

The only blessing is that this will be a -the only- closed door session without a live studio audience. The judges will then use their performances to determine who they want on their team, to coach and mentor for the next however-many episodes of Sing! Idol.  

Changmin takes the news as well as he can. He stress-bakes a giant pizza for all of them to share, and shuts himself inside the shower scrubbing off the scent of oven-baked dough and rehearsing Wild Soul in an effort to bake the lyrics into his brain. 

Kyuhyun makes him sing it in entirety sans backing track for him in the evening, eyebrows high. He socks Changmin lightly on the arm. “If I’m a soufflé. You’re a shot of ristretto for uh… What’s that dessert with coffee again? Where you pour the coffee onto ice cream?” 

Changmin chokes. “Why am I a shot of ristretto?”

“You’re unassuming and black-humoured and then people drink you up and you kick them in the teeth,” Kyuhyun says sagely, and pauses. “Wow, that was like poetry. Maybe after this is over, I can ask Henry if I can moonlight as a lyricist for him.”

 

--

 

The studio lights are overly warm, and makeup sits oddly on Changmin’s face. 

It’s only foundation and powder and BB cream and brow liner, you have such beautiful brows but we need to make sure they're perfect, please don’t touch your face, it’s just light makeup to make sure you don’t wash out under the lights, the makeup artists said, but it feels too thick.  

The three judges appear, coiffed and poised. The twenty of them also get introduced to Jun Hyunmoo, who is the MC and presenter for Sing! Idol. He’s professional but warm, quickly joking to put them at ease. He even manages to coax a smile onto Yeri’s face.  

Changmin detaches himself from Kyuhyun’s side and looks around. 

Zhou Mi is even taller than normal with his hair gelled up off of his forehead, and Taemin’s eye makeup is pink and iridescent and makes his eyes look twice larger than usual. Luna is startlingly pretty with lots and lots of gold eyeshadow and a gold bodycon dress. Even Chanyeol, who usually just hangs around the Idol mansion in over-large crew neck tees and track pants, is dressed in a snazzy quilt bomber jacket and too-tight skinny jeans topped off with a snapback; standard rapper wear, he informs Changmin. 

The stylists wanted to go visual kei, but Changmin doesn’t want to look like a near two metre tall punk rock monstrosity. He’s managed to talk them down to merely spiking his bangs up and putting him fully in leather and too many accessories. There's still too much gel in his hair and he has been avoiding looking towards the makeup artists, where more than one are eyeing him covetously with black kohl in their hands.

Tiffany keeps laughing whenever she looks at him full-on. Changmin’s not quite sure what to make of it. 

The dancers are all clustered together, and Changmin sidles closer out of curiosity. He regrets it a minute later when he comes face to face with a stage-ready Yunho, and questions all of his life choices. 

The production team has put Yunho in an extremely faithful replica of Michael Jackson’s Thriller costume. Three guesses what Yunho is performing this evening - it starts with “Th” and rhymes with “filler”. 

What’s truly obscene isn’t the outfit though. It’s how they’ve made up Yunho’s face- which is already unfair on a normal day, but Yunho with suddenly poreless skin and cheekbones and white teeth and winged black eyeliner smudged at the corners and barely visible smoky eyeshadow brushed over the arcs of his eyes and bold slashing brows with mouth painted a deep nude rose is just…

Unreasonable overkill.  

Yunho smiles at him through all the orange pleather and shiny trousers and tightness and… tight. Just tight. “Break a leg, Changmin!”

“You too,” Changmin barely maintains his composure. 

 

--

 

The red light comes on too soon, and they’re in their places. The producers say they would cut the first episode with footage from the six weeks of Sing! Idol training - enforced to ensure they all start out together at a more even playing field - till the very first competition session.  

Soyoung clears her throat. ““Rolling,” she instructs. 

Hyunmoo appears, greeting the cameras and laying down the Sing! Idol rules for the future audiences.

Six months. Twenty contestants. Three teams. Three judges. Fifteen rounds of themed singing challenges with weekly eliminations. One finale. One winner. One hundred million won. One record deal. 

Every man and woman for themselves.

Changmin takes a deep breath, and brings up his mic. 

 

--

 

丁度いい...なんて いいアンバイ...なんて

きっとこの感情は満足できない

純粋な心 チョット置き去って 甘い幻想 二人で描こうよ

Standing by my side ねえ君のすべてを見せてくれ

-- WILD SOUL.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Singing is an art. I am an artist. Yes, I am here to win. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.” 

--SEO Hyun (28), voice actress.


“The funniest thing is… My family actually has no idea I’m here. My dad thinks I’m on holiday in Europe visiting all his old football club contacts so I can better understand what goes into athlete management.”

-- CHOI Minho (27), semi-pro athlete. 


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Introduction Challenge winner: SEOHYUN

 

To the absolute surprise of no one, Seohyun wins the first challenge with a stunning rendition of Britney Spears’ Sometimes. To the absolute surprise of no one, Yeri goes home, crying - but happily. 

Changmin tries to hug her after the Hyunmoo announces the result. She pats him back, but she’s smiling as she pulls away. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I get to sing at school too. My mum will be glad to have me back and rattling around my room, again.”

To the absolute surprise of everyone, Luna is the other person to go home this first week.

(“Double eliminations!” Hyunmoo cries, gesturing dramatically at the cameras trained on him.) 

She sings Dance in the Dark, her voice powerful, channelling Gaga all the way down to her extremely gold outfit that leaves nothing to the imagination, and does some vaguely pornographic yoga moves that passes as dancing. It brings a bemused smile to BoA’s face while Jongkook tries to be politically correct and tells her she’s better suited for stages like the Gwanghwamun Art Festival than a mainstream televised singing competition. Jaewon just keeps his head in his hands. 

“I asked them to let me perform with just fluorescent body paint and the stage lights off,” she shrugs as Victoria holds her hands tightly with reddened eyes, “but the producers told me no. Broadcast higher ups says we have to think of the regulatory restrictions. What restrictions? This is art!”

It’s been less than two months, but they have been eating and drinking and practicing and laughing -and squabbling- everyday. All the living out of each others’ pockets makes all of them sentimental, so there are more tears shed than warranted. 

Changmin supposes Hyunseok is right. It is like the military, in a way. 

Luna is unfazed compared to the rest of them. “It’s all right, I’ll just go home to my flock,” another shrug pulls the thin strap of her gold dress dangerously low- Changmin averts his eyes- she’s not wearing a bra- “It’s been what? A month and a half? That’s seven sessions they’ve had with a subpar yoga teacher. They’re probably all doing their sun salutations wrong.” 

Chanyeol is, ironically, the one who cries the most. Changmin chalks it up to the shock of nerves and the threat of near-elimination; he’s heard the younger man rap before, and he’s extremely good. Nerves must have gotten to him somehow because he manages to forget a full line in his song choice. The judges acknowledge that, just as they acknowledge how his pause was barely noticeable before he raps out the beat in onomatopoeia. 

It’s precisely this that saves him, and allows Jaewon, after a quick conference with the production team, uses something called the Judge’s Chance on him.

“Using it in the first episode already?” Hyunmoo covers his mouth theatrically with a script card, but the shock in his face is not wholly feigned. “A reminder to the audience, our three judges only have one Judge’s Chance each in this entire competition - to save a contestant of their choice from life or death! And our dear judge Jaewon has decided to use it in the very first episode on... Park Chanyeol! Congratulations!” 

They’re further sorted in three teams, care of the judges. They number eighteen strong now, after the double eliminations. The judges each get six contestants, to coach for the entirety of the competition. Changmin half-expects that he won’t be picked, he knows his performance of Wild Soul wasn’t anything special. Amber did the rock genre too and her song was way more polished.

To the absolute surprise of him, BoA picks him. She also picks Wendy, Taemin, Tiffany, Henry and Taeyeon. She smiles at all of them, and says, as the crew is changing tapes, “Good luck, guys. Let’s have fun. We’ll crush them all.” 

Jaewon goes heavy on the dancers as expected, gunning for Yunho, Hyukjae and Victoria as his first picks. He whines when Taemin is taken by BoA instead, and then bolsters his team with Chanyeol and Irene, then Minho. “We’re making the best hip hop and dance group ever to grace television,” he declares to hoots from his team. Yunho and Hyukjae are dancing a sloppy version of the Shoot dance in celebration.

Jongkook sniffs at them all and unveils his team consisting of Kyuhyun, Seohyun, Zhou Mi, Donghae, Kyungsoo and Amber. “All your team can do is dance. Mine can sing - and there are plenty of sharp tongues and variety skills to look around.” 

They look expectantly towards BoA, but she just smiles again and flicks a teasing glance at the cameras. “One can sing and dance and rap to their heart’s content, but the X factor is what that elevates those skills into a star.”

Just like that, the competition is real. Welcome to Sing! Idol. 

 

--

 

The joking atmosphere of the past weeks has vanished. Oh, the eighteen of them still laugh and chat, but after the double eliminations and the team sorting, everything starts to feel more focused. More “we are here for a reality TV fight” rather than “hey singing boot camp!”. 

Changmin is still trying to wrap his head around the fact that he hasn’t flunked out of the competition, and Kwon BoA, the focus of his mother’s terrifying fangirling for more than a decade, is apparently his coach in all things performance for the next however many days. 

“We’re still friends, right,” he says more than asks Kyuhyun the night they’re back in their room digesting the fact that they have a week to prep for the next challenge, with the theme of “ballad”.

Kyuhyun rolls his eyes and throws the cork- because Kyuhyun is a madman that smuggles a cask rather than a bottle of wine in - from one of their previous drinking sessions at him. “Don’t be stupid, Shim. This singing reality TV thing is months but wine is forever. What do you think?” 

“Okay,” Changmin says, emboldened. “So does it count as cheating if I sing to you my song choice and you tell me if it counts as a ballad?” 

Leaning against the desk that separates their beds, Kyuhyun gives him a long considering look. “Why does that sound more like an order than a question?”

Changmin allows a smirk to crawl across his face. “Why, Counsellor, because I already checked with the producers to make sure this isn’t against the rules… So do you want to hear it, or not?”

“You!” Barking out a loud laugh, Kyuhyun shakes his head. “People think you’re shy, but you’re actually the devil.” 

Changmin sings two stanzas of his song choice at Kyuhyun, who shakes his head again then, at Changmin’s nagging, sings the entirety of his ballad pick. 

 

-- 

 

The teasers for Sing! Idol go out, across social media and broadcast.  

Changmin nods absentmindedly as the producers break the news, and fumble when Jihwan films him reacting to interview questions that the writers Hyejin and Jaeni pepper him with. Jaeyoung tells him as an aside that these are for the show’s official Instagram profile and YouTube page. 

“Oh, I haven’t watched them,” he stammers in response. “I’m sure the production team did a great job!” 

Hyejin makes a moue of exasperation, and writes in big sprawling strokes on her notepad. REACTIONS! TALK ABOUT CONTESTANTS, NOT CREW. WE ARE BORING.   

Jaeni pushes Hyejin’s notepad out of the way and raises her own. OKAY SO WHOSE TEASER ARE YOU MOST LOOKING FORWARD TO?

“Hmm Henry, maybe?” He ponders. “And maybe Victoria and Hyukjae and Yunho and Taemin… I think the dancers will show off their skills very well.”

Jaeni slaps herself on the head. Hyejin freezes, then scribbles something down. She nearly takes Jaeni’s eye out as she raises her notepad again. VICTORIA? TALK TO US ABOUT VICTORIA. HOW DO YOU FIND HER?

“Oh, she’s very good at dancing! Yunho too! Did you guys get the footage of them dancing to Hips Don’t Lie ? I know Victoria and Yunho’s cameramen were filming them-” 

Hyejin lies down on her notepad. Jaeni raises her notepad with TAKE FIVE scrawled in defeated curlicues and then realises she can speak because the footage is unusable anyway. “Uh, Changmin, let’s rest five minutes. We’ll ask questions again in a bit, but maybe you can think about saying things this way…” 

 

--

 

They get their phones back, but there is a million clauses and addenda to the non-disclosure agreements, so Changmin doesn’t use his phone much, either. He drops his family a text in the group chat first, just to say that he’s alive, and also because his mother will probably find their location to skin him then feed him his own skin otherwise.  

His sisters text him back screencaps of his teaser with a string of !!!!! and emojis. Changmin grimaces at the sight of TV him, which apparently consists of sweaty-and-cooking him, as well as really-too-much-gel-in-hair singing him. 

He texts Hyunseok, because he’s used to checking in, and also his fellow sous chefs Garam and Hyemi to ask about the autumnal menu, which must be in practice already since they are in October. The replies back are too quick and similar.

Changmin looks at the clock - it’s fifteen to three. All of them must be having their lunch breaks and prepping for the dinner rush now. Hyunseok merely tells him not to worry and enjoy himself, but Garam texts him kitchen gossip. Apparently rumours are true and the head chef, Jinwoo, was going to open his own restaurant by the start of the new year. 

Changmin suppresses a pulse of excitement. As sous chef for the hot part, typically he will be the next in line to inherit the head chef position. Hyunseok can be unpredictable though, so he doesn’t want to dwell too long on that. Garam has no such qualms and writes bluntly that the entire kitchen expects him to be the successor. He stares at her text and flicks to the next one without replying.

Hyemi sends him a smiley face and a picture of the autumnal specials printed on vellum. They have kept his burrata and wine candy invention, as well as the deconstructed duck main. He saves the image in his phone gallery, precious reminders of the real world. 

That night, he digs in the team mansion’s fridge and hauls out some of the staples the production team has been providing for them, in case anyone wants to make their own food. Store-bought kimchi, ramyeon, flour and eggs. Cabbage and carrots. 

The smells lure everyone to the kitchen, but Minho is the one exclaiming in surprise as he watches Changmin pour batter into a flat grill pan he’s dug out from the cupboards. “I thought you’ll feed us European food! Or steak!”

Irene goes to check, and comes back with a morose, “there’s no beef in the freezer.”

“I don’t know,” Donghae says, sniffing the air and leaning way too close to the island counter stove. “This smells amazing. Are you sure you’re not a chef for Japanese cuisine?”

“Proper Kansai chefs would run screaming away from this bastardisation,” Changmin reassures them, round discs of okonomiyaki sizzling merrily away on the hot grill. Seohyun and Taeyeon are nowhere in sight, so he’s made enough batter for sixteen. 

“We’re not proper and can we eat already?” Taemin interrupts, “I’m starving. Dance practice was bad.”  

Changmin chuckles and flips the first batch onto a large plate to Victoria’s incredulous, “why are you dancing for a ballad challenge?”. He doesn’t even get to add mayonnaise (and otafuku is not mainstream enough to be included in the fridge), Henry confiscating it from him with an impatient “ah, no, don’t worry, the pancakes are enough.” 

It’s a little frightening how fast the plate clears - Changmin’s only through with pouring the fifth circle of batter onto the grill pan - especially given how the production team had bought them jajangmyeon barely an hour ago. 

Everyone stares at the empty plate and then eyes the hot grill covetously. Changmin makes a noise of exasperation and flaps the spatula in his hand at them. “People. Didn’t you have dinner earlier? Youngjin was bitching about how someone left behind too much pickled ginger?” 

“Yeah,” Yunho says, laser focus on the sizzling grill, then the nearly empty bowl of batter that Changmin’s curved protectively around. “But that was takeout. This is homemade food. I haven’t had homemade food since I went to my parents’ for Chuseok in advance. You made tapas for us, but this is Asian food.” 

There is a chorus of agreement and Irene dares to stick her hand to the bowl to filch some batter. Changmin hisses at her and flips four of the okonomiyaki. “This is not homemade food! I am using instant ramyeon!”

“I didn’t think anything is better than instant ramyeon with soju at midnight,” Zhou Mi says dreamily, picking a charred bit of batter off the plate and popping it into his mouth. “But you proved me wrong.”

Changmin stares at him. “You’re Chinese.”

“Your nationality shouldn’t restrict you from enjoying sin on a plate,” Wendy cries passionately, “can you give us the first four? I think they’re burning.” 

He pours the final circle onto the grill. “Nice try, kid, but I think I’ve been cooking longer than you’re alive.” 

It takes another excruciating (for everyone else) seven minutes, but they’re all munching on the next batch whilst Changmin guards the last two pancakes on the grill. He’s already smacked Hyukjae for trying to lick the dirty batter bowl. 

“These are very good, Changmin,” Kyungsoo says quietly, cutting his slice into precise quarters. “Thank you so much.” 

Changmin’s ready to wave him away - he should thank them for allowing him his odd cooking binges - but Yunho looks up. His mouth is a mess of mayonnaise and pancake crumbs and oil, but it doesn’t detract from his very white teeth. “Yes, thank you so much, Changmin! I think I’ve only had better okonomiyaki in Osaka, and that was beneath a railway track and I was half-drunk off of sake… ” 

Bloody hell, his ears are on fire. Kyuhyun is eyeing him knowingly, so Changmin speaks to the final pancake he’s flipping. “I told you guys, this isn’t real okonomiyaki. There’s instant ramyeon and there’s no meat in it.”  

Kyuhyun throws a dirty fork at him. “Take a compliment, mate. We love it. Now eat your okonomiyaki.” 

“I need to wash up first,” Changmin says, and then his protests for the next half an hour go unheard as he’s shoved into a chair, given a fork and the last pancake. The team splits to wash up and ends up squabbling at the sink and having a water fight. Yunho grabs Victoria and sets her to wiping the counters whilst he tackles the stove. 

“You cooked, so we’ll clean,” Yunho smiles at him. Changmin’s seated at the island counter overlooking the stove and Yunho’s bent over the burners, so their faces are uncomfortably close together. His teeth really are very white. His biceps, to Changmin’s distress, are bare again. “It’s only fair.” 

Changmin clears his throat. “Well, I mean, it’s not really an exchange. I don’t really ask you guys what you want to eat, I kind of- just force it… on you all…” he forgets he’s even talking at the travesty of cleaning Yunho performs on the burners. “What are you doing.”

Unperturbed, Yunho cocks his head. “Cleaning? I’ve been watching you clean whenever we actually use the stove for eating.” He swishes the rag in his hand a little more. “Don’t you do it like this?”

A frisson of something skitters down his spine at the thought of Yunho watching him, but Changmin shoves it away in favour of leaping from the bar stool, one hand stretching across to grab at the cloth. “You don’t smear at the stove like that - you’re just smudging the oil around- Oh my God don’t twist the knob that way, you’ll break it- “

Their fingers tangle together. 

Yunho has very pretty nails. Neat for such a messy man. Changmin ignores the sudden pounding of his heart to scrub at the caps. Yunho looks puzzled. “Wasn’t this was what I was doing?”

“Go help Victoria with the counters!” Changmin barks, and wishes he could set himself on fire. 

 

--

 

The rivalry between the teams do get hyped up for the cameras though. At the behest of the producers, Changmin does spend more time - most of his time - with his team.

Henry and Tiffany are a riot, and it depends on Taeyeon’s mood if she deigns to spend time with them or stays aloof and locked up in her room practicing. When she’s around them, half the time she is sniping at Tiffany and parroting her American accent. 

Without food blinding them, Taemin and Wendy are typically more courteous to him, although they develop a disconcerting habit of quoting at Changmin particular dishes they are craving. 

Bulgogi?” Taemin suggests from his side, when they’re filmed for a group session with BoA where they ask her too specific questions about certain singing techniques and do their best in preventing her from guessing their songs. 

The type of coaching the judges are allowed is odd, even to Changmin’s variety-untrained mind. In order to ensure the judges still judge the rest of the contestants not on their team as impartially as possible, the judges are not exposed to their own team’s song choices until the actual challenge itself. 

Instead, they have to ask her to demonstrate certain singing techniques or exhibit how to show certain moods on stage or ways to sing certain individual notes. It makes for interesting TV, at least. They learn too much about head voices and chest voices when before all these, Changmin thought the only one voice you have is what’s in your throat. 

“Lasagna,” Wendy counters, as they listen to BoA praise Taeyeon for portraying a successful take-no-prisoners attitude on stage. “And the reason why she’s good at playing a bitch is because she’s the Bleached Blonde Bitch.”

Wendy,” Changmin tries to drive an elbow into her side (already difficult because the child is so damn short), but the girl just laughs at him and tosses her hair back with a sweet, “so, Changmin, what about tteok-bokki?”

 

--

 

They have three more days to the second challenge, and Changmin has sung his song pick until he’s half convinced he can - and has according to Kyuhyun- sing it in his sleep. 

He’s more than a little nervous. Taemin’s doing a ballad dance, whatever that is; Seohyun is bringing in a band from… somewhere; and Wendy’s playing the piano herself. Some of the others are preparing sets too, and have requested resources from the production team. Changmin’s just got a backing track.  

He gets the idea after watching Wendy play Take A Bow on the baby grand in one of the practice rooms for the umpteenth time. Flagging down the ever present Jooyoung, he presents his request and watches the assistant producer levels him with an unreadable look.

“Is it something that’s- not quite done?” He asks nervously. Try as he might, he still can’t let his guard down around the crew, like some of the other contestants. 

“Oh, no no,” Jooyoung says, digging out his phone and tapping a few buttons on it. “It’s pretty common. People actually started asking since the prior challenge.”

“Oh.” Changmin stares at him, confused. Jooyoung feels his gaze and looks up, lips curved into a wry grin. “Sorry, I was just kind of taken aback because I didn’t expect you’ll ask for it.” 

“I… So the show’s keyboardist is okay with helping me play accompaniment?”

“I’ll have to ask to get a confirmed answer,” Jooyoung nods at the approaching Youngmin, summoned by his text. “But like I said- it’s common. Live music is better than a backing track, anyway. Ignore me. It’s just that you… don’t really ask for things, Changmin.”

 

--

 

He comes across Yunho, humming parts of a song at the camera, flanked by the assistant producer and cameraman assigned to him. The crew is following them around more, given that the competition has officially started.

“Oh, Changminnie,” Yunho greets him, whilst Changmin’s cameraman Jihwan mouths Changminnie? to himself. “Have you guys met? This is Jaeyong, one of the PDs, and my cameraman, Myunghwan.” 

Changmin bows hello at them, and tries to continue on his way. A sudden arm around his neck stops him in his steps though, and the movement is carried over; he staggers back and somehow ends up against Yunho’s side. Their heights are similar, Changmin’s even got an inch on Yunho, but he finds his own face smushed up against Yunho’s neck instead.

Yunho smells like clean sweat and strawberry shampoo. Changmin quietly has an aneurysm whilst Yunho is apparently perfectly content to talk at the camera while holding onto the equivalent of a giant stiff statue. “-and Changmin’s really talented! He likes rock, and cooking. Sometimes he cooks for us and he’s singing X-Japan the whole time, and I don’t think he really knows it. You’re really jealous right, viewers? You wish you have Changmin cooking and singing to you, don’t you!”

Changmin yanks himself upright and free of Yunho to nearly bonk his head on two cameras. Lovely, now Jihwan’s at it too. He manages a weak “Yunho’s very fond of exaggerating,” but it just makes Yunho steamroll over him.  

“And he’s really shy too! Look at him! He’s so tall and handsome and so talented, but he’s so so shy,” Yunho gushes, slinging an arm around Changmin and reeling him back in like a baited fish. Hook, line, sinker. 

Changmin thinks he might faint. 

It’s good that Myunghwan seems to be using a stabiliser, because his body is shaking from the effort of keeping his snickers unnoticeable. Beside him, Jihwan frowns in concentration. The angle of his camera suggests he has Changmin in a close-up. 

The entire farce only ends when Hyukjae walks past and somehow the entire thing turns into an impromptu breakdancing competition. Changmin tries to sidle off but finds himself the unlikely judge. 

He watches as Yunho flows backwards in a move that reminds him of water sliding over rocks, easy grin gone and face intense with concentration. Changmin tells himself that he admires Yunho’s determination. Just his determination and his dancing skills.  

Yes, Yunho’s just someone with qualities he admires. Respects. 

Then Yunho flips himself into a headstand and raps about doing anything for them tonight before launching into a howl of “everybody come to HA-EUN-DAEEEE, everybody come to GWANG-GA-RI~”  

Hyukjae laughs so hard, he falls on his arse in the middle of a dance move and just lies on the floor, cackling.  

Changmin doesn’t know why he bothers with these idiots. 

 

--

 

The first official episode airs the night before the second challenge is due. All of them cram into the living room to watch on the giant Samsung television screen the crew has kindly provided them for product placement. Even Seohyun deigns to join them. 

The crew leaves after setting up two fixed cameras to focus on them, and getting some group reaction shots. The four sofas are packed to maximum occupancy and similar to introductions day, some of them end up sprawling over the beanbags. 

Minho, Irene and Chanyeol kept harping after him like nagging housewives (“when you’re at the cinema, you need popcorn too! How is this different?”), so Changmin’s whipped up fresh sweet potato crisps and hastily pickled radish for munchies. 

The show’s logo flashes and the opening montage plays. Then it’s all of them, together with Luna and Yeri. Changmin’s confronted by the very strange sight of his face in all its 98 inch, QLED high definition, dynamic colour glory. He can see his eye bags; he can see his pores .  

He doesn’t think himself as particularly vain, but he’s a Seoul city man. He even exfoliates weekly. It’s disturbing to realise that his skincare routine doesn’t stand up to visual technology these days.  

Even though the screen is showing events and footage that they’ve lived through, there’s just something vastly different about watching it on a screen and presented from various point-of-views. Incidents that are funny on their own are made gut-burstingly hilarious with bold punchline supers; any and all instances of tears - most of them Yeri’s - were given dramatic makeovers complete with sad piano music and slow panning shots.  

Everyone’s introduction interviews are aired, and Changmin feels himself shrink slightly in his seat when everyone seems to be more articulate and polished than him. Even taciturn Kyungsoo is onscreen talking earnestly about his childhood dream to sing. 

Footage-wise, the camera (and editors) seems to love Hyukjae and Yunho, Taeyeon the most. It’s quite obvious that the producers hope they’ll go far. The rest of them are footnotes in comparison, but Changmin feels only relief. He knows he’s too boring for good TV.  

The scene changes and it’s the kitchen. Changmin wants to smack himself; evidently his relief was premature. He watches in slow dawning horror as they splice his crazy tapas binge in quick frames against an EDM version of Flight of the Bumblebee and giant, in-your-face supers.  

“Holy shit, it’s like Iron Chef,” Irene whispers, as on-screen Changmin flips things in pans and moves around the kitchen and tosses things and slices things and plates things and generally just behaves with high competency but in a way that hasn’t got anything to do with singing. They have him darting around onscreen in hyper-lapse, which makes him look even more maniac. 

Does he hunch over the counter that much? He makes a embarrassedly consternated note to himself to watch his posture. 

Amber scoffs, “no, it’s like Please Take Care of My Refrigerator! When the crazy TV chefs cook dishes in fifteen minutes and they all kind of look like the Road-runner operating on five times speed?” 

Seohyun’s barb against his (lack of) singing skill is also aired to its full glory to an awkward silence (onscreen and offscreen), complete with quick cuts to everyone else’s frozen expressions. On the centre sofa, Seohyun carefully doesn’t look at anyone. 

Henry crunches too loudly on a piece of radish and mumbles an apology when everyone jumps. 

Introductions and training montage over, they segue into the first challenge proper. Changmin was too nervous on the actual day to truly appreciate everyone’s efforts, except for Yunho, whose Michael Jackson outfit was too in-your-face for one to do anything but acknowledge its full worth. 

His phone buzzes. He looks down to see a text from Hyunseok. We’re all watching you from Choidot right now! Jinwoo set the player to record in case you’re doing some singing competition thing and can’t watch yourself. Since you’re still not back with us, fighting for the second challenge! You can do it. We believe in you.

He gulps and swipes the message away. Focusing back on the television screen, he cheers and claps as everyone’s efforts are shown beautifully on screen. 

 

--

 

They’re back on set, and this time round it’s ballads. Changmin’s stylist eyes his lanky frame; visibly pleased with what she has to work with. A close distance over, Donghae’s stylist isn’t so optimistic. “No, you can’t wear velcro-ed trousers- what do you even want to do! This is not a strip club!”  

Circling him, Changmin’s stylist makes considering noises whilst Changmin tries to not feel like a giraffe being eyed by a very hungry lion. She tilts her head back and asks, “so what song are you singing?” 

It’s not quite a secret, so Changmin tells her. She makes another “hmm” and eyes him. “Doing anything special? Like Taemin’s gone crazy and wants to dance to ballads, so his stylist is putting him in thin layers take sure he doesn’t overheat. If you have surprises like that, tell me now.”

“Now” is punctuated by a jab towards his chest. He resists the urge to rub at the spot. She has very pointy fingers. “No, nothing like that. The set keyboardist is helping me do piano accompaniment and I’ll sit next to him and sing. That’s all.”

“Sitting down?” His stylist says, nose wrinkling. “I hope they’re putting you on a bar stool, yes? If you want to sit down, go for a bar stool. It’ll showcase your legs.”

“Yes, the producers said they’re having me sit on a bar stool.” 

“Good, good,” she’s suddenly a flurry of movement, and Changmin has three suits heaved into his arms and tries to juggle them without dropping or wrinkling anything. “Um, Yoonju, I don’t think-” 

“No, shhh shh, you may be able to cook and sing but you are shit at fashion,” she scowls at him “so you’re going to be a good boy and try all three to let me decide which one is best at making your legs look miles long.” 

“Um,” Changmin feels compelled to point out. “They all look the same… and they’re all in shades of grey-” he squawks; she’s shoved him over to the cramped dressing room on the other end.

He tries on all three in the end, because she scares him. They - well she - finally agree on a dark grey pinstripe blazer paired with an over-sized, overlong shirt with a mandarin collar, and cropped trousers. His feet are shoved into white trainers without socks. Somehow the overall look is bizarre in that it works; Changmin had thought the too long shirt and too short trousers would make him look as though he has no legs.  

“Done,” she crows, satisfied. “And yes for the face, Hyeyoung, come over, you’re needed-”

And he’s attacked again, slathered with BB cream and foundation and more makeup than he thinks men should be wearing. He’s just thankful that the styling team is giving deference to ballad week and leaving his hair relatively alone this time. They blow dry it so that his bangs fall naturally sideways over his forehead, and the hair stylist sneakily gives him a trim about the ears before he realises what is going on.

“Hey, that’s my hair!” he splutters, but they only laugh at him and go, “and that’s our craft!” before moving onto the next victim. 

 

--

 

Changmin doesn’t get to watch everyone’s performances. Their order is decided by random draws at the start of the challenge. Wendy and Yunho go on right before him, so he’s allowed to stand in the wings and watch them from the side. He stands in the shadows, careful that the audience - the audience!- doesn’t notice him.  

Wendy’s playing the piano to a wistful, ballad rendition of Take A Bow. Unlike Rihanna’s original, which was mostly jaded bitterness, Wendy manages to suffuse a naive longing to the lyrics, a reluctant heartbreak. 

He really likes it. The roar of the studio audience as the last note of her “but it’s over now” hangs, tells Changmin that they agree too. All three judges are riveted. BoA is sitting straight in her seat. 

It’s Yunho’s turn. Changmin watches as Yunho strides out onstage from the opposite wing. He’s wearing a striped crew neck jumper and a yellow shirt as a jacket, and the whole thing just looks very familiar somehow.  

There are already high-pitched shrieks and cries (“Yunho!” “Yunho we love you!”) for him from the audience, and he takes his place centre stage, giving both the audience and the cameras a blindingly rakish grin. 

It isn’t until the opening guitar-and-piano strains of I Believe sound, and Changmin realises that Yunho has taken his performance one step further again by dressing as Cha Taehyeon in one of the scenes in My Sassy Girl. The very film Shin Seung Hoon sang the song for. 

It’s a completely different side of Yunho from what everyone’s been exposed to so far. Gone is the shit-talking dancer with fancy slick moves. Gone is the laughing choreographer with razor-sharp focus. In his place is a Yunho that is grasping the mic almost delicately, and letting his voice, slightly husky, soar in a melody that Changmin’s heard many times before but is somehow hearing again with fresh ears.  

This Yunho that sings ballads is an alien creature. He doesn’t move as much as the normal Yunho does. He’s still and quiet and lets his voice speak for himself. The only movements he allows are the crunch of his eyebrows as he sings the higher notes effortlessly, and the turn of his fingers across the mic. His other hand is a folded fist, clenched against his stomach. 

Over at the judges’ table, Jaewon’s mouth hangs open. BoA has her eyes closed, and Jongkook is holding up the headphones each judge is given, the ear cup against a ear, so he can listen to Yunho’s voice without ambient noise.  

The song is over too soon - Yunho and Hyunmoo exchange pleasantries, and the judges are called to offer critique, before the audience votes. 

Jongkook is the only one that picks up the mic, and he goes, “At this point in time, there are technical suggestions that come to my mind, little things you can do to help push your performance more. I don’t want to talk about those now. I want to talk about how you have surprised all of us- does Jaewon even know you can sing?” to Jaewon’s dramatic gesture of protest and scattered laughter from the audience, “and right now I just want to commend you for singing with your emotions. This is a lovely surprise. Dressing as the male lead is also a nice touch, because it brings all of us back to that scenario. I think I speak for more than myself when I say we are eager to see more from you. Thank you!” 

There’s applause, and Yunho bowing as he moves back into the wings. The judges banter a little with the audience, and they vote. 

 

--

 

Changmin can feel his hands sweating.

He grips the mic even tighter, and bows to the judges, then to the audience, a perfect ninety degrees held for three seconds. 

The audience likes that, and their murmurs swell into applause. Changmin stands on the mark where Yunho stood previously, and tries not to panic. 

BoA smiles reassuringly at him. Jaewon cracks a joke that he doesn’t quite hear. Jongkook just folds his hands together, content to wait for Changmin to begin. 

Beside him, the keyboardist has finished setting up. Changmin takes two precise steps back, so that he comes up against the bar stool the set crew has left for him, and leans.  

The song is fully in English, so his anxiety is a near physical thing. He’s sung it again and again and again at Tiffany and Henry until they declare his English to be proper and accent-free.  

He taps his fingers against the mic to the beat of the four note variation the keyboardist plays, and wait for his cue. Three bars - two - one - 

 

--

 

All my problems 

They will run away from you and I see

All the angels sit and stare at you 

You are everything but not today

-- ALL MINE.

 

Chapter Text

 

“I want to show the world what rap really is like. I want to make real hip-hop and real rap mainstream.” 

-- PARK Chanyeol (26), underground rapper.


“Did I tell you that Hyukjae and Yunho and I actually work together? And Yunho was actually the one who brought me into this industry as a teenager? Talk about fate! None of us told each other that we signed up for this, so imagine our surprise when we turn up and it’s like- huh? Is it another work day? Are we working offsite? And then it’s like Ohhhhh My God!”

-- LEE Taemin (26), dance instructor.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Ballad Challenge winner: WENDY

 

Sure enough, Wendy wins the hearts of the studio audience and the judges, and is declared the challenge winner of Ballad Week. Even though a part of Changmin feels the surprise of Yunho singing with restrained calmness should have gotten a higher score, the sight of Wendy at the piano, playing and singing with a maturity and heartbreak that belies her years… She deserves the win.

Minho goes home, and though everyone is quite surprised, Jaewon’s regretful “you have more passion for passion than you do for performance” does quite make sense. Still, it’s a pity. But Minho just smiles and thumps them all very hard on the back, and promises to watch Sing! Idol faithfully every week.

“Don’t kick me out of the group chat,” he warns as the crew hustle him away to pack and prep for his exit interview. “Or I’ll come find you all! I know where you live now! All of you!”

The jokes are enough that none of them spills any tears. 

Immediately post the recorded challenge session, the audience gets dismissed and files out, whilst the now-seventeen of them are hustled backstage immediately for a next steps briefing.

The next challenge happening in one week, Youngjin shares, is to sing a rock song of one’s choice. It will be another double elimination week. 

Things don’t feel real to him. Somehow, Changmin hasn’t been eliminated. He’s not kicked out yet even though at least two producers have told him he’s not exciting enough for good TV. The writers have taken to writing instructions on their notepads to flash at him, when they can’t run away from interviewing him. 

Somehow he’s still here at Sing! Idol. 

 

--

 

“I think we all know who will win this challenge,” Zhou Mi says when they’re all back at the Sing! Idol mansion. Some of the girls have gone to bed and Taemin’s headed off to get used to the fact that he has the entire room to himself now that Minho’s gone.

It feels only natural that the rest of them files into the kitchen, grouping around the island counter or crowding over at the smaller wooden table off the side. Henry hops to sit cross-legged on the dining table. Donghae digs into the fridge and pulls out a can of Coca-cola and downs it in one shot. “My coach isn’t here, and singing doesn’t require a diet plan,” he shares conspiratorially, and lets out an obscenely large belch. 

Changmin’s neck itches. He looks up from where he’s texting his sister Sooyeon, who’s trying to badger him into giving up spoilers, to too many eyes trained on him. He squirms, trying to look away to break eye contact, but he turns from meeting Zhou Mi’s gaze to Amber raising an eyebrow at him and then at Chanyeol’s narrowed eyes. He thought the other direction might save him, but then Kyungsoo’s eyes boring into him. 

“All right,” he gives up. “What? What?”

Irene picks at the side of the cupboards. They seem to be gathering in the kitchen too often. “You’re going to win.”

“Win what?” Changmin blinks rapidly. “Sorry- my sister was being a pain and I wasn’t following the conversation.”

Once again, Yunho saves him. “Well! Just because Changminnie is good at rock doesn’t mean he’ll automatically win, you know? Guys, where’s your fighting spirit? Changminnie is a benchmark, but with hard work, we can surpass him!”

Okay, he doesn’t feel very saved. 

“Uh…” Changmin says, but Donghae snorts. He’s cracked open a can of Sprite now. “Dude, you were here too when he flipped the giant pajeon and then screamed out We Are The Champions ’s chorus in victory. On key.”

“No but,” Chanyeol is getting into it too, eyes widening. “Yunho’s right. If we just think Changmin’s going to win, then we all give up, then he’s definitely going to win, yeah? But if we think he’s going to win, and we think hell no I won’t go down without a fight, then we have a chance!”

“That’s it,” Yunho grins, reaching over to high-five Chanyeol. “It’s not a given that Changmin will win! We just have to go at it! Sing rock like it’s the beginning for us all over again!”

Chanyeol nods fervently, “Like it’s the reason we live for! I’ll rock like I rap! Like there’s no tomorrow!”

“Like there’s no tomorrow! We can do it!” Yunho encourages, pumping a fist into the air.  

“We can do it!” 

“We can do it! Rock on!”

“Roooooock on!”

Afterwards, Yunho claps Changmin on the back. “Good talk,” he says cheerfully, while the others disperse to head to their separate rooms.

“I didn’t do much,” Changmin says truthfully. 

 

--

 

The competitive atmosphere thickens. Chanyeol and Yunho’s motivational shouting session the other night is the catalyst that gives birth to a monster. Changmin can’t walk around a corner without stumbling over someone practising their growls and screams and projecting their mixed voice.

Luckily, there still seems to be a thread of sanity, and no one (well except Seohyun, but she’s like that to all of them) truly takes the “Changmin is a threat to us and let’s all ignore him and maybe put poison in his food” gag further than a few jokes. 

Changmin’s maybe a little grateful. Of course he doesn’t think he’s leading the race for the rock challenge, but with this gag, at least there’s a concept for him this week. The writers are looking slightly happier and Jooyoung has stopped sighing for now whenever he plays back the footage Jihwan has filmed of Changmin. 

Amber even comes to him and sings part of her song at him, to ask for critique. Changmin tamps down the “you’re the one with more experience in performing than me” and “I feel like a fraud because I only just really like rock and listen to a lot of it”, and suggests that she can start low and clean before building up to the first chorus and layering in her techniques. 

“Do you feel cold and lost in desperation,” she sings, whilst Changmin is very aware that Jihwan and her cameraman are hanging some distance away, both lenses trained on them. “You build up hope, but failure’s all you known.”

Funnily enough, Iridescent was one of the songs he had listened to on loop, nearly burnt out from the kitchen, when Linkin Park first came out with it in his early twenties. The song had helped him to make the decision to head to the military. To step back and away for a little while. To help him understand that even though his progress was slow, it was still progress.

He doesn’t tell her this. 

Grinning, he claps hard and now he’s doubled over, laughing, because Amber’s swinging from around his neck. He’s watched her before in the travelogues she hosts, and she once swung the same way from a tree in Taichung. Changmin feels her voice is honest and beautiful and it’s always a privilege to hear her drop her boyish, class-clown façade to sing, and tells her so. 

He doesn’t mind when she prods him to sit down and be more comfortable while she starts from the top again. Both their cameramen capture the whole thing from beginning to end. 

 

--

 

He speaks to Jooyoung again. They had agreed to his ask for a keyboardist the last time, so perhaps this time round his ask won’t be too ludicrous. 

Jooyoung blinks down at the piece of paper Changmin’s given him, and then looks back up. Changmin gives him a self-conscious grin. “Is that too much?”

“No, no,” Jooyoung says, blinking. He looks down and up again. “We can certainly do this, you don’t want to hear what the others are asking for- Henry’s got some crazy idea- Jihwan!” He barks. Jihwan fumbles, nearly dropping the piece of bruschetta Changmin has slipped him since he mentioned he didn’t manage to breakfast with the rest of the crew. “I’m gonna- repeat- can you get a wide shot then come for a close up?”

“Yurh,” Jihwan affirms, mouth crammed full of bread and tomato and oil, wiping greasy fingers on his work trousers. Changmin turns to grab some tissues, but is stopped by Jihwan’s head wagging from side to side and Jooyoung’s impatient “no no, don’t bother with that, we want this footage for the audience- yes, ok, now pause for two seconds and give me the paper again-”

Changmin has to redo the whole thing three times. He can’t stop himself from sneaking glances at the camera, much to Jooyoung’s amused frustration. “It’s been two months, Changmin. Surely you must be used to the cameras by now! Don’t look into the lens- this isn’t the interview segment!” 

Changmin coughs and shuffles his feet, squawking halfway because Donghae’s just passed behind him and declares his presence by smacking Changmin very hard on the arse. Jihwan films the entire moment gleefully. “Uh - ow!- not really?”

He refrains from pointing out he’s lived two months surrounded by the constant presence of live cameras and thirty years without them. 

The assistant producer and his cameraman exchange looks, and Jihwan shrugs, hefting his camera higher. “We can always do it Parks and Rec style,” he suggests. “Good for comedic relief. The viewers won’t expect it of him, with that face. The editors will love it.”

“Yes, but he looks like he wants to eat the camera alive sometimes, and we have a ‘ages 12 and up' rating,” Jooyoung argues. The two of them just… walk off, still debating Changmin’s expressions, which are apparently problematic for free-to-air broadcast television. At least Jooyoung’s holding on the piece of paper where Changmin’s sketched out the number of people he needs. 

Jihwan says his double takes are “frontload teaser worthy”, whatever that means. 

He texts Hyunseok, do I look like I want to eat people alive?

? Hyunseok returns, but before he can explain himself, another message pops up. Are you talking about the face you make when we are on the dinner rush and customers keep changing orders? Or when Jinwoo tells you to redo the capellini because it’s not paired on time with his scallops? Because yes, you look like you want to eat people alive then. You look like you want to eat the WORLD alive.

So it’s my face? It’s scary looking? Changmin types.

no , Hyunseok replies. Your eyes look like they want to kill people and then revive them just so you can have the pleasure of killing them again. You make that face too when you shuck abalones. What did those poor abalones ever do to you?

 

--

 

He runs into Yunho towards the end of the week and then nearly runs into the wall because they’re not recording but Yunho’s wearing eyeliner.  

“Oh, Changmin!” Yunho greets brightly. Changmin hasn’t seen him properly for two full days. After Amber, he’s been holed up with Tiffany and Henry because they want to take turns scream-singing old American rock songs at him.  

“Hi,” he manages. It’s rare, but both their cameramen are nowhere to be found. There are no cameras except for the fixed ones at the corners of the hallway.

Changmin casts around desperately for a conversation topic. “How’s your practice coming along?”

“It’s coming,” Yunho smiles. Today he’s in a comfortable looking tee and track pants with giant neon trainers. But that eyeliner. “I think I might be kind of crazy for choosing it, because the song is actually about Santa Claus but…. I like the melody. It’s actually a song that I helped choreograph some simple dance moves for the original singer back when he released it!”

“Uh?” Changmin says. He always seems to be a disaster around Yunho but this is the first time he’s having auditory hallucinations. “Did you say Santa Claus?” 

“Yep,” Yunho says. He gestures at his face. “And I asked the stylists if I can try out my outfit and a makeup concept earlier.”

“I see,” Changmin’s mouth has apparently lost its social filter, because he blurts, “I always think you look very good with eyeliner.” 

“Oh! Thank you!” Yunho’s smile is a giant supernova and Changmin thinks he may be blinded. 

“I’ll just uh… Kyuhyun screaming into bushes and,” Changmin says nonsensically, and flees. 

 

--

 

He does go find Kyuhyun, because Changmin’s a bit of a coward and he doesn’t know if Yunho will come check up on them and he doesn’t want to lie. Not to Yunho.

Kyuhyun’s calmly scribbling something in a practice room, seated with one hand negligently on a keyboard. He looks up as Changmin stumbles in, and raises an eyebrow when Changmin lets himself face-plant slowly into the wall while emitting a long, desultory moan. 

“Not that the last five seconds of your life haven’t been extremely entertaining to watch,” Kyuhyun says, twirling his pencil. “But you kind of sound like you want the wall to fuck you. Or is fucking you.” 

Changmin rips himself away from the extremely inviting wall with a scandalised, “Kyuhyun! They’re recording!” with a chin tilt towards the cameras in all four corners of the room.

Kyuhyun is unperturbed. “It’s fine. Fuck. So they’re recording. Now they can’t use the footage because I said ‘fuck’. Right, producers?” He waves at the one in the corner nearest to him.  

“They can always use the footage and just beep you out.” Two months ago, Changmin had an extremely small circle of friends and a minimum level of strangeness in his life. Now he has this. He melts downwards until he’s seated on the floor, legs stretched out in front of him. 

In the chair, Kyuhyun makes a contemplative noise. “I keep having this question float into my head whenever you do that. Is it hard to get up on your own? I read somewhere that giraffes can’t quite lie down, because it’s super difficult for them to get back up. They even shit out their babies standing up.” 

Changmin stares at him, too horrified to be surprised. Or maybe it’s the other way round. “Did you break out the wine without me again, asshole? I’m not that much taller than you.” 

He darts an apologetic glance at the cameras. 

Kyuhyun waves a hand. “Overruled, no factual basis in writ. There are only four bottles left, sadly. We need to spread out our rations.”

“Mm,” Changmin says. He stares at his feet, feeling shy and clumsy and stupid from his non-conversation with Yunho. Kyuhyun lets him brood, and says apropos of nothing, “remember when you told me about your request to the production team for the Rock challenge?” 

“Yeah?” 

“So… you know for my song, I’m asking my university friend to come play the electric guitar for me right?” 

“Mmhmm,” Changmin doesn’t know where Kyuhyun is going with this.

Kyuhyun doesn’t look at him, “so I didn’t mention anything about anyone else’s song choices, because that’s not allowed. But he told me I’m lucky I reached out to him this week, because he just came back from playing at a rock music festival in Osaka.”

Changmin looks up. Kyuhyun doesn’t blink. “He opened for Yoshiki. With his band. Covering X-Japan numbers.”

“What… Are you serious?” Changmin clambers onto his feet. “Are you saying what I think you're saying?”

“What do you think?” Kyuhyun twirls his pencil again. “Shall we talk to the producers?”

He’s trying to wrap his head around this. Changmin’s mouth is dry. “Kyu, why are you doing this?”

“I told you,” Kyuhyun puts the pencil down and gets up, too. “This silly competition is six months but wine is forever. And I’m not pulling any strings. It’s just that the chance is there. It’s stupid and petty not to offer it to you.”

“I.” He clears his throat. He’s going to make Kyuhyun an expensive million won fusion dinner (the girls had it wrong on tapas night; with the amount of food Changmin made, it would have crossed into five-figured American dollars territory) that features all his favourite foods. He’s going to make Kyuhyun homemade kimchi. He’s going to brew Kyuhyun his own makgeolli. He’s going to get himself into very loud and very expensive legal trouble and then hire Kyuhyun to fight a court battle for him. “Wow. I don’t know how to thank you.”

“Save a kidney for me,” Kyuhyun suggests, and cackles long and loud when Changmin shoves him into the door.

 

--

 

They speak to the producers, and after more than a few sessions with too long silences and musing pauses and a whole heap of side-eyeing, Changmin comes straight out and asks, “is that against the rules? Because if it is, it’s okay. I don’t need Kyuhyun to provide that contact for me. He just- We just… Because of the choice of music. He thought to let me know there is a chance, that’s all.” 

There’s another pregnant silence. Youngmin and Youngjin exchange glances.  

Soyoung leans forward, across the extremely long table. They’re in a conference room at the broadcast station. “Well, I won’t precisely say this situation is not allowed, but… We’re in a bit of a grey area. The competition-”

“Because the guitarist we’re talking about is my friend, but we’re suggesting for him to perform for another contestant?” Kyuhyun interrupts.

Soyoung levels him with an unimpressed look. “I wasn’t finished. Because the guitarist in question is not precisely someone off the street and also because he is your friend, and you are suggesting he plays for both yourself and another contestant. Already if he just plays for you and you alone, there might be plausible netizen backlash about you owning an unfair advantage over the others in the show.”

“However,” she continues, because Kyuhyun looks suitably cowed. “The two of you have been very upfront about this and we’re very happy that you came to us of your own accord to check if this is against regulations or otherwise. Our team has also been in contact with your friend. We’ve also checked in with management, as well as asked the judges’ their opinions too.”

Kyuhyun and Changmin straighten. Soyoung smiles at them. “It’s fine. Kyuhyun can provide the contact for Changmin’s guitarist, as part of the larger backing band Changmin had requested for earlier. There is also no issue with this guitarist playing for both of you, since your challenge choices are different songs entirely.”

 

--

 

Kyuhyun introduces his friend to Changmin a day before the Rock ‘n’ Roll challenge, and Changmin tries his hardest not to be starstruck.

“Jungmo, this is Changmin,” he says, and Changmin tries not to swallow his tongue. Jungmo offers him an easy smile. “Changmin, Jungmo.”

“Hi,” Changmin says, shaking Jungmo’s hand. “I’ve watched you before- you and TRAX. May Music Festival. You played X Japan then, too.” 

“And your German biergarten fusion pop-up was amazing,” Jungmo laughs. He has a firm grip. “My band and I had the honour of being treated to that by our management company.”

“Ah,” Changmin says. He relaxes. “Thanks! That one was fun. Did you try the spätzle? That dish was my favourite.”

“We kind of went mad on the pork knuckles. My sound engineer even took a video of us inhaling them and he’s been using it as blackmail material ever since.” 

They run through the song a couple of times, easy because Jungmo’s played it for three days at a music festival last week and countless times before, and because Changmin’s been practicing as much as his voice allows, on repeat. 

Jungmo pulls a face at him. “When Kyuhyun mentioned it to me, I wasn’t really…” 

Changmin grins, nervous. “We sounded okay, I feel.”

“Okay is an understatement,” Jungmo says. They rehearsed for another half an hour before Changmin remembers himself and suggests that it might be time for Jungmo to run through Kyuhyun’s song choice. 

He sits at the bottom of the stage as they rehearse Masquerade, originally by Kim Wansun, and claps the longest and loudest at every single run-through. 

 

--

 

It’s almost showtime, and approximately four hours before they have to stand in front of an audience of two hundred and sing live again. Changmin’s not feeling well at all and it’s not from the thought of singing one of his favourite songs in front of strangers and letting them have at him and then having it broadcast across the nation in a week and flaying himself open to maybe even more criticism from more strangers on the internet and maybe he’s having a panic attack. 

It’s the monstrosity they expect him to wear.

“No,” he splutters, backing away, “no no no no no no nooooooo.”

Yoonju, the stylist, just huffs a breath out at his histrionics, unimpressed. She had drawn his name to style the previous round too. Maybe that makes her feel like she needs a challenge, he really doesn’t know with these crazy TV people, but he’s had repeated conversations with her all week and she has been telling him she was putting something together for him and they even had to measure his inseam since she’s not doing off-the-rack, but now the outfit she’s proposing he don in a few hours is, well, for want of a better word. Mad

It’s barely an outfit. There are no buttons. There is barely a front. It’s just a heap of filmy black something stitched together with maybe leather and something else that glimmers. Up till five minutes ago, it has been draped over a form and Changmin had hoped it was a prop for someone else’s performance. Yoonju just pulls it off and hands that to him, together with a pair of soft suede trousers. 

Changmin doesn’t know where to even begin. His head turns from left to right at the things she’s holding, and then down because she’s shoved them into his hands. “You- there’s a shirt right? Yoonju, say you forgot the shirt,” he says, desperate.

If her eyes roll any harder, she would probably be staring at the back of her head. “Are you questioning my expertise? Of course there’s no shirt!” 

“How is this a top- It’s just a piece of cloth-” Changmin wants to drop the thing on the floor, but there is a hard glint in Yoonju’s eyes that says she will probably shank him with a sewing machine spindle or whatever sharp instruments stylists carry. He pinches it gingerly instead between his thumb and index finger, and shakes the trousers clutched in his other hand. “And this- this is purple?” His voice goes very high on the colour.

At least three other contestants look over. 

She looks at him with dead eyes. “It’s lilac. What’s wrong with lilac?”

“Nothing!” And Changmin likes purple. Or lilac. Whatever. He likes them as food decoration in the form of flower garnishes and sweet potato lattes and taro balls. He even likes them on walls or even actual purple- colour blocks- in clothes. But somehow lilac makes the pair of trousers in his hands look more soft, like they’ll be perfect as jammies. For bedtime. 

“Stop throwing a tantrum and go try them on,” she’s jabbing at him again, “I slaved for three nights over this!” 

“Yoonju- Yoonju- Yoonju, this-” Changmin tries to stand firm and make her see reason. “I can’t. You remember you people are putting me on TV right? I can’t be naked on TV! It’s national television! My mother is watching.” 

“Oh, stop being such a prude, you ninny,” she snaps, shoving him into the dressing room. It’s an impressive show of strength because her head doesn’t even come up to his shoulders, “it covers more than it looks. Your body proportions are perfect for this, I’ve wanted to try this for the longest time.”  

In the end, he puts the outfit on -is it an outfit if the entire ensemble only has one zip and no buttons and the zip is for Changmin’s fly?- only because Yoonju practically stands over him, and threatens to strip him down and dress him herself.  

In the larger waiting room beyond, Zhou Mi cackles and shouts that he volunteers to help, since he’s the only one taller than Changmin. Changmin’s pretty sure he can bench press the other man. He does spend a bit of time at the gym when he’s not at the kitchen.  

The one he doesn’t dare to cross is Yoonju. She looks like she’s perfectly happy to stab him and then shove his corpse into the damned thing. 

He steps out of the dressing room, hunched and cringing, and discovers that his earlier whinging had attracted undue attention. There’s at least four of them with Yoonju, and to his horror, Jihwan is there too with his camera hefted onto one shoulder. 

Yoonju’s not having any of it though. “You can’t film now,” she barks at Jihwan, who’s so startled that he nearly drops his camera. She slaps at the lens and leans over to jab at a few buttons on its back. “He’s not wearing the boots, don’t film him yet!” 

The other contestants are too silent. When Changmin tears his gaze away from Yoonju, who’s haring off to get something-or-other, he finds all of them staring at his midriff. 

“This is so fucking unfair,” Henry whines. He looks amazing and larger than life with glitter in his coiffed hair and a ripped rhinestone denim jacket, but right now his face is screwed up in a little boy woebegone frown directed at Changmin’s person.

“I mean, he’s probably eating for entire days and days in the kitchen,” Hyukjae agrees. “How does he have that?” 

“I don’t know,” Victoria muses. “Don’t chefs have to stand the whole day? And aren’t woks very heavy? Choppers, too. Maybe that’s from lifting all day.”

“That’s chefs for Chinese food, no?” Tiffany reaches out a hand to lift away the flap covering Changmin’s chest, and then snatches it back when he slaps at it, very hard. “But Changmin is in European fusion. He doesn’t use woks. I think.” 

“Oh my God, all of you are insane,” Changmin moans. “Go away!” 

“No,” Victoria says. “First tell us where did you find those abs. And those pecs. And those guns. I dance six hours a day for practice and I don’t even have those!” 

Everyone looks at her stomach, which is nicely on display with a cropped bandeau top, then Changmin’s. “I don’t know, Vic,” Tiffany wrinkles her nose. “I don’t think they’ll look good on you like that. You’re fine now. You’re haaaawt.”

The two girls laugh and coo over each other, Changmin’s torso forgotten. In the corner, Yunho straightens. “You look very nice, Changmin.”

Changmin can’t- there needs to be buttons on this thing- he hunches over further- 

Yoonju bustles back, and then shoves a pair of long black boots at Changmin. She hits him on the arm, hard, to pull his attention to her. “Put them on.”

“No!” 

“Shim Changmin,” Yoonju’s face is inches from his, and the other contestants are still here, Yunho is still here, “I have dressed models and actors and pop stars. I have dressed Han Hyejin and Lee Youngae and Kim Taehee and Won Bin and all of them were very happy with their clothes. All of them thank me for a job well done. You will not break my streak.” 

He puts the boots on. They’re heeled boots that come up midway his calves.

There’s another silence, and Hyukjae wails dramatically, turning to leave. It’s the cue for the others to scatter. “I can’t look at any more of this. This is too depressing. Ughhhhhh whhhhyyyyyyyyyyyy...”

Yoonju is smirking like the cat that got into the fucking cream and gobbled all of it up and maybe a whole cage-full of canaries too. Until Changmin hunches, and she hits him again. “Ow!” 

“You need to stand straight,” she hisses, and jabs at his solar plexus, then at the small of his back. “The cut of the brocade won’t show unless you stand straight. Stop pretending to be a prude, no one has designer muscles like that unless they want to show them off- stand straight! See, when you stand straight, you just see your arms and your collarbones. I told you it covers more than it looks.”

Then she snaps a leather cuff around his right wrist. 

He opens his mouth, and closes it again at the hard look on her face. She nods in satisfaction. “Good boy. Now go find Hyeyoung about your face and your hair.” 

Yunho comes forward, and Changmin looks helplessly at him. There’s a suspicious tremble around the other man’s lips, but his face is perfectly straight. “Let’s go, Changmin. I need to see Hyeyoung too.” 

“Where’s your- where’s your stage costume?” Changmin manages. Yunho’s got an arm around his shoulder.

Yunho shrugs, carefree. “Putting it on later! Mine’s easy.” He slants a sideways look, wicked. “And my stylist likes me.”

“Yoonju likes me!” Changmin protests. Yunho flicks gently at his ear. “I think she likes your body. You, not so much.”

“I- I just-”

“You work out a lot, huh?” Yunho asks, casual and curious. Changmin does something that Jooyoung had previously moaned was impossible. 

He blushes. He can feel his entire face getting warm and red. His ears feel like they’ve gone nuclear. Oh, this is ridiculous. He’s been silent too long. Yunho must think he’s some socially awkward freak.  

He scrubs a hand through his hair, “I’m not- I- We have a gym that’s- You get cooped up when you stand in the same- we get back problems if we don’t-” 

Jesus, he’s not making any sense. He takes a deep breath and tries again. Yunho’s hand is a brand on his shoulder. The man himself is quiet, still looking at him with a patient smile. 

“Not really a lot. But almost everyday either before or after my shifts. I mostly just run and do cardio. Some weight training. We stand too long in a place in my job. Bend over too much. Even with comfortable shoes, over the years, it gets. We get health problems. Occupational hazard. My boss got all of us gym memberships in the same building so we’ll take care of our health. Do you know your spine gets the best support if the surrounding muscles are healthy and optimised? So I… yeah.”

Yunho laughs, and flicks his ear again. “I’m not making fun of you, Changminnie. I think we’re all just really surprised and envious that you’re hiding all that underneath those old man jumpers you always wear. Especially when you already have that face.”

Changmin sees the makeup artists. He wants to walk faster to them and he wants to stop here and keep this moment forever. “I’m… I get cold. It’s October,” he says helplessly. “I just want to be healthy. It’s not for- showing.” 

He doesn’t even know what Yunho means about his face. He knows he’s funny looking. 

Yunho pats him, and cuffs him gently about the neck. Changmin makes himself meet the other’s gaze. “It’s very nice showing, though.” 

There’s something in Yunho’s dark dark eyes and Changmin’s overthinking it and getting ideas and Yunho’s just being friendly. He takes himself away and plops himself into a swivel chair to the mercy of the makeup artists.

 

--

 

He’s onstage listening to the introduction beats that herald the start of his performance. 

There are some straggling cheers, and the stage lights dim, then come up in one strong sweep to focus on him. 

Everyone quietens.  

Four paces from him, Jungmo is poised over his guitar, dark eyeliner smeared around the eyes. Their eyes meet, and hold. Then Changmin gives a tiny nod.

Jungmo launches into the four-chord guitar introduction, fingers steady and sure and pick-less. The bass guitar joins in, and it’s the drums. 

In front of him, the audience gives their first smattering of applause. He can’t quite see them. The lights are too bright. 

Changmin takes it as his cue. It’s courage he’s never had, it’s a nameless something that simply possesses him and makes him open his mouth, “Everyone! Let’s get ready to rock on!”

The crowd cheers, a swell of noise. He sings, yanking the mic and kicking the mic stand away. 

He’s been self-conscious the past two songs, but not this one. He loves this number too much. Everything blurs into white noise, everything except the band and the music and the song. It’s in Japanese, it’s his third Japanese song now for the competition and maybe that may raise eyebrows because he’s yet to sing a single Korean song on the show but he can’t help it - this is one of his favourite songs, if not the most. 

“Oh, rusty nail! どれだけ淚を流せば, 貴方を忘れられるだろう!”

He remembers discovering this song as a angst-ridden teenager, angry at the world. He had heard some cover of it somewhere, and from there went to dig out the original, and was lost. He was scrawny and thin and tall and ugly with funny ears and uneven eyes and a giant wide mouth and the boys in his class were interested in different things, like fighting and girls and cars, whilst he liked badminton and singing and cooking with his mum. 

It led to teenage him over-identifying with the lyrics and screaming this song out at the noraebang, when his entire class felt like they had to do awkward bonding sessions that led to too many teenage hook ups. It didn’t help that that year he had shyly made a Valentine’s Day card with help from his mum, for one of the girls in his class, and she had accepted it but awkwardly told him she already had a boyfriend. 

Less than a year after, an SM scout approached him during physical education class to give him a name card. At the same time, Changmin’s request to stage at La Cucina was finally approved, where a young self-taught sous chef by the name of Choi Hyunseok pushed his case through with the strict head chef Collavini Paolo. He could stay and learn for a period of six months. 

Changmin chose the latter, and stayed, and stayed.  

“序章に終わった週末の傷忘れて, 流れる時代に抱かれても胸に突き刺さる...”

The first drink he had as a twenty-year-old adult was a Rusty Nail, funnily enough. The bartender at La Cucina had made it for him, and followed it up with a Flaming Lamborghini and too many Graveyards. He didn’t even make the connection until he woke up, hungover and slumped in the kitchen freezer where Jinwoo and Manjae had poured him into, swearing off cocktails. 

Jungmo strums a cord, and the drums quieten. Changmin takes a breath and sings the bridge. 

“朝を迎える孤獨を忘れて. 赤い手首を抱きしめて泣いた, 夜を終わらせて...”

He pushes himself through the last note, dragging it out, bringing the mic up and further away. The note ends through Jungmo’s guitar riffs and an ascending beat, then Jungmo launches into the guitar solo. 

Changmin closes his eyes, sinking into the melody. It’s muscle memory maybe, with how often he’s mouthed and sung and screamed along with this song in nearly two decades. He braces himself for the final arc.  

“苦しくて心を飾った. 今もあなたを忘れられなくて....”

Then it’s over. He clutches the mic, panting, staring, glaring out at the white lights. 

He wins the challenge. 

 

--

 

どれだけ淚を流せば 

貴方を忘れられるだろう 

Just tell me my life 

何處まで步いてみても 

淚で明日が見えない

-- RUSTY NAIL.

 

Chapter Text

 

“We’re all here to win, right? This is survival of the fittest, at the end of the day. The others are nice. But I’m not here to make [beep]ing friends.”

-- KIM Taeyeon (30), pub singer.


“I’ve always loved to sing. I’ve tried out in auditions before, at the Big Three. It was… They would tell me I’m too short. Or too awkward. And everyone was like, ‘Have you thought about acting’? So I went into acting. And I’m happy about my success. But I’ve never forgotten about singing.”

-- DO Kyungsoo (26), indie film actor. 


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Rock ‘N’ Roll Challenge winner: CHANGMIN

 

When they announce his score for the Rock ‘N’ Roll Challenge, Changmin is in disbelief because it’s one of the highest scores on the show so far. They’re only three challenges in, but it still gets him a lot of approbatory thumps on the back when he wanders backstage in a daze. 

Someone needs to pinch him, he says out loud, and yelps when Zhou Mi does just that to his arm. 

Hyukjae’s half out of his costume and yanking at the back of Changmin’s lilac trousers, trying to give him a congratulatory wedgie. Kyuhyun’s sweaty and gross as his eyeliner has run so much that he just looks like he has huge racoon-like dark eye circles. But he’s got a tight arm around Changmin’s shoulder and Changmin’s got an arm back around him and they’re hugging. 

Changmin doesn’t like to touch people much, but Kyuhyun is an exception. They know each other for barely two-and-a-half months but already it feels like a lifetime. 

Jihwan’s hovering, ubiquitous camera on one shoulder. 

“You’ve won this,” Kyuhyun yells into Changmin’s ear, straining to have himself heard over the thumping bass. Seohyun is on stage performing, the second last performance of the evening. 

“No, no,” Changmin demurs, something giant and spiky in the pit of his stomach. He accepts the running tackle Amber aims at him. “We don’t know yet. There’s still Seohyun and Yunho.”

Kyuhyun rolls his eyes. “You’ve won this,” he repeats. 

They stay in the immediate backstage area because Changmin still hasn’t seen Yunho’s costume, and he’s curious. Seohyun strides out, almost running them down after about fifteen minutes. Her eyes are glittering in the dim dark, and not in a good way. 

Changmin looks down, but Kyuhyun has no qualms about meeting her gaze. She snarls at the both of them and dissolves into tears, shoving past them to head to the waiting rooms. 

“Do you think…” 

“There’s still Yunho,” Changmin says, feeling sorry for Seohyun despite himself; despite how cold she has been to all of them. Kyuhyun doesn’t say anything. They both know Yunho won’t allow himself to get a low score.

The spiky feeling in his stomach is migrating upwards. Changmin does his best to squash it. 

The man himself bursts upon them not quite before half an hour goes by. Kyuhyun’s shaking his hand and teasing him, but Changmin is just working very hard to not swallow his tongue because now he gets why Yunho had said he had a “makeup concept” and how his costume is easy to put on. 

This inability he has in functioning like a proper non-embarrassing human being when in Yunho’s vicinity, is getting tiring, but he really can’t help himself.  

Yunho’s in a furred monstrosity of a hat with antlers. The rest of his costume is relatively simple if demented, a red leather jacket and white tee paired with red knee-length shorts and knee high black socks with shiny black loafers. 

Hyeyoung has gone mad with Yunho’s face. Today in addition to black eyeliner he’s got swoops of pink-red eye shadow and there’s shimmering powder in his brows. She’s gone and placed a heart sticker on his cheek. There’s gloss on his lips. 

Changmin can’t look at him directly. But the split second he did is seared into his hindbrain. 

They’re all ushered back on stage, to hear officially what most of them already know anyway. Changmin’s won this challenge. It being a double elimination week, two contestants are going home, to bring the total number of them down to fifteen. 

It’s Seohyun. Which they’re all expecting. And… It’s Taemin, one week after Minho’s departure.

“You did well,” Jaewon tells him. Just not well enough.

Like everyone had predicted, Hyunmoo announces to the cameras that Changmin’s score is the highest. It doesn’t feel real. He bows, and bows again at the audience. To his surprise, a row of girls in front shout his name, and burst into giggles.

It doesn’t feel real at all. 

He’s both in utter disbelief and in complete, incandescent happiness. He’s been so caught up with feeling like a fish out of water and extremely inadequate compared to the rest, that he’s expecting nearly every moment for the other shoe to drop and to be eliminated (even though he suspects that may also come as a relief). But contrary to what Chanyeol is laughing and yelling about now, Changmin didn’t know it will happen. His win. 

Maybe to the others, or from outside looking in, it feels like a shoo-in. Like a fact. Changmin likes rock, ergo that is Changmin’s strong point, ergo Changmin will win. 

Not to him. Despite the week-long teasing, despite the unbelievable aid from Kyuhyun in the form of Jungmo, despite singing a song he knows for more than half his life, Changmin had expected to do well, and end up in the middle. He’d expected -hoped- he won’t have to go home over singing one of his favourite songs.

He has never expected this. It doesn’t feel real. 

He ends the night with mixed feelings. On one hand, this win is so completely unexpected to him that it’s the best form of gift possible. Like finding a perfectly ripe avocado at the farmers’ market. Like baking a soufflé and having it rise puffy and perfect out of the oven. Like that time he’s pulled off a pop up with his own menu. Like that first time he cooked for Hyunseok and earned an approving smile at the end of it. 

It’s the kind of unexpected when you’re half-unsure if it’s a dream, and then there is the slow, sweet feeling of joy as the seconds tick past and you don’t wake up. 

On the other hand, his joy is tempered by the announcement Youngmin makes just before they’re allowed to take off their costumes and makeup and head back to the Sing! Idol mansion. 

Next week’s challenge theme is dance.

Changmin can’t dance. He knows he’s going home next week. 

 

--

 

He crashes immediately after he washes off the stage makeup and staggers into bed. 

Even utterly drained, Changmin’s body still remembers the routine Paolo and Hyunseok drilled into him. He wakes up by a quarter to seven the next day. The morning air is feeling a bit nippy and October is ending, so he throws on a hoodie over his pyjama bottoms and pulls on an extra pair of socks.  

He blinks. He won?

He meanders downstairs in a daze.  

He won

It’s early enough that half the crew’s not here- and the early birds who have arrived are breakfasting in the foyer, munching on their egg toast and drinking Americanos.

He won last night. It wasn’t a dream.

None of the others are awake yet. When he left his room, Kyuhyun was a lump of blankets and loud snoring in the other bed. 

He revises his assessment as he enters the kitchen and espies Yunho in the garden through the windows. The lunatic is awake and doing some crazy stretching exercises in the garden that involves him bending over backwards. He’s only dressed in a thin white tee and a pair of jogging bottoms. His feet appear to be bare. And his assistant producer and cameraman are nowhere in sight. 

He stretches upward and the white tee pulls. A hint of a pale belly flashes. Changmin makes a noise. 

A throat clears behind him, and Changmin jumps. To his horror, Jihwan is there and holding onto his camera. The red light is on. 

“Good morning,” he says. “Congratulations!”

For one brief terrifying moment, Changmin thinks Jihwan is congratulating him on staring at Yunho like some Peeping Tom pervert and getting a glimpse of skin. Then he remembers. 

He won!  

“Oh, yes, thank you!” He puts his back to the window and scrubs a hand through his hair. God, he has bed hair. It’s probably sticking up everywhere. He hasn’t shaved yet. Shit, when did Jihwan come in?

Changmin hopes fervently the camera didn’t catch what he is -was!- staring at. Jihwan did, though. There is an unholy gleam in his eye that Changmin doesn’t like. 

He washes his hands and wanders over to the fridge. Jihwan lags, content to film him walking away in wider framing, and says, “if your hands are feeling itchy, the producers had the fridge restocked last night.”

Changmin turns and looks askance at him, one hand on the fridge door. Jihwan pauses on recording and explains, “they hoped you’ll cook to celebrate your win and we can use that footage.”

“Oh,” Changmin shifts. He does plan to cook, but his sleep-clogged mind just wanted to do it as a simple form of thank you and now he’s feeling awkward and complicated. He’s not trying to stage anything. “Um, do they have any requests on what they want me to do?” 

Jihwan puts his camera down completely at the sight of his discomfort. “No, no. It’s not like that. We don’t need you to pretend or- act anything. It was just that Jooyoung mentioned to Soyoung that you have a tendency to cook when something happens to you. So Hyejin and Jaeni felt given last night, we should restock the fridge for you to go ahead… if you want.” 

Oh. Changmin smiles, embarrassed. “Oh. Okay.” 

“Have you eaten?” he asks as he pulls open the fridge door, then the freezer. The production team’s splurged this time round. There’s galbi and dwaeji galbi and samgyeopsal and even a whole chicken. Jihwan answers in the negative, camera back on his shoulder. 

Changmin grabs the kimchi (still store bought, although a decent supermarket brand) and bean sprouts, seaweed and pork ribs and heaves them over to the sink. He deems it safe to look out of the window again. Yunho has disappeared. 

First things first. He pulls out a pan and cracks an egg, then two. The bread is fresh, so he slices two slices and throws them in. There’s ham shavings tucked away in the chiller, so he scatters a handful on the slice to the left. He flips the one on the right on top of the ham-egg-bread combination, and tops the thing with a slice of Kraft’s cheese that he’s found by the eggs. 

He puts the entire concoction in front Jihwan with a fork and a knife. His cameraman is gaping at him, but his hands are steady on his camera, which lowers to give a proper close up of the plate, then pans upwards at Changmin.

“Eggy bread with ham and cheese,” Changmin explains, turning back to bring the pan and spatula to the sink. “Kind of like a hasty poor man’s version of a croque madame. Same ingredients but that’s the wrong order, of course. Sometimes when I’m running late, I make this to eat because it’s faster.”

“What is a croque madame?” Jihwan asks, and pulls out a tripod from somewhere to secure his camera. Changmin shrugs, “erm, well… I guess you can say it’s a ham and cheese sandwich with an egg? Please eat well.” 

“Thank you for feeding me,” Jihwan says, looking a little shell-shocked, and digs in with relish, standing up and leaning against the side of the island counter. He’s careful to eat silently though, and angles the camera so it captures Changmin bustling between the sink, the fridge and the island counter stove.

There’s a rustle behind him. It’s Jaeni, with her trusty notepad. Her eyes track between Jihwan and Changmin, then she sits next to Jihwan in one of the counter stools and steals the fried cheesy yolk off the top slice of bread. 

She lifts her notepad, but Changmin’s too busy staring at the fridge interior to look at her. So she asks out loud, “are you making breakfast, Changmin? What food are you making?” 

“Oh! Good morning,” Changmin says absent-mindedly. “Yes, I’m making breakfast for the team. I don’t know, but I’m thinking maybe a Korean breakfast? Have you eaten?”

Jaeni raises her notepad again, and this time Changmin is facing her and the camera. YES. DON’T WORRY ABOUT ME. WHAT KOREAN BREAKFAST FOOD ARE YOU MAKING? 

He looks over at the sink, then at the rest of what he’s pulled out to put on the counter. There’s also a pear, an onion, zucchini and mushrooms. Perilla leaves and more eggs. “I’m thinking maybe grilled pork ribs, since there’s gochujang and pears and onions. A homemade miyeok guk maybe? There’s anchovies. And maybe a few banchan, and bean sprout rice.” 

He looks up. Both Jaeni and Jihwan are gaping at him. 

PLEASE CONTINUE. IGNORE US. Then Jaeni nods and gets up, leaving the room. Changmin doesn’t think much of it, turning around to wash and trim the excess fat off of the pork ribs. He’s got the rice in the cooker already and the pork ribs won’t have time to marinade properly, so he’s just going to grill them with the mix slathered on. 

He’s tossing the anchovies into a giant pot of boiling water for the seaweed soup’s base, his other hand grasping the trimmed bean sprouts and sliced mushrooms when he looks up again and blinks. There’s a mini-wall of cameras. Yunho’s cameraman, Myunghwan, waves at him. 

“O...kay…” he says, uncertain with this continuing fascination they have with him cooking. God knows he doesn’t have any fancy tricks like TV chefs do. He just cooks.  

The rice can’t wait, so he ignores them to the best of his ability and goes dump water in. The soup base is boiling well; he drops the seaweed in for a mild boil, whilst pulling the pear and onions over to mince quickly. 

YOU CAN GRILL PORK RIBS WITHOUT MARINATING FOR HOURS? Jaeni writes, so Changmin explains how it’s possible to cheat slightly, a method he had used at Choidot's kitchen pop-ups when sedate marinating was impossible due to the short setup time and mad rushing. 

Yunho wanders in when Changmin’s already done with the perilla leaves, seasoned and tossed with sesame oil. He’s sliced and plated the store-bought kimchi with a side of fried egg rolls. He's found two boxes of cold tofu, and that gets diced and used as well with a simple sauce made from garlic, soy and black bean sauces. The soup is also done, and placed aside. The rice will need about fifteen more minutes, but that’s fine because he can use that time to grill the ribs. 

The other man is sweaty and his tee’s almost see through. Yunho doesn’t seem aware of it, bowing at the writers -Hyejin came in with Jaeni when Changmin was digging around for the sesame oil- and the Great Wall of Cameras, which had slowly multiplied the longer Changmin’s at the stove.

“Good morning, everyone!” He waves, beaming. His hair is wet and dark with perspiration and he has socks on now. “Changminnie, that smells absolutely fantastic. What are you making? I’m so hungry!”  

“Ah, just breakfast,” Changmin says, tongue tied. He fumbles slightly with the tongs and the grill pan, but manages not to drop any of the ribs. Yunho drifts closer. Changmin can smell him; clean sharp sweat and the scent of the outdoors. “Were you- were you running?” 

Myunghwan does a quick zoom to Changmin’s face, then pans over to Yunho from toe to top.

“Yeah,” Yunho enthuses. He mouths a “wow” at the sight of the pork ribs sizzling neatly in the grill pan and looks back up at Changmin. “It’s amazing weather outside for running right now. I didn’t think I’ll sweat, but I did. This is amazing, Changmin, you made us Korean food ?” 

Hyejin stifles a laugh. Yunho says “Korean food” like how Donghae will say “Pelé” or “Ronaldinho”, all hushed and reverent. Changmin’s ears feel like they’re turning their habitual red, but he’s half-used to them doing that when he’s around Yunho now, and focuses on checking the bean sprout rice instead. He hasn’t forgotten that Yunho said the last time he's had homemade hanshik was August. “This is done, too. Just the dwaeji galbi, now.”

Yunho’s still staring at him with stars in his eyes, so Changmin focuses on washing the bowls and saying to the cleaning sponge, “sorry, I think no one else is awake yet. Do you mind popping up to round them up? Just. The bean sprout rice is no good cold.” 

“On it,” Yunho says, and zips away. The crew eye each other, and then go back to staring at him. Changmin avoids all their gazes, and the white of Jaeni’s notepad as she waves it at him. The pork ribs smell good. He’s hungry too. 

 

--

 

To Changmin’s horror, even before the Rock challenge episode airs officially, some tasteless netizen with a shit sense of humour decides to rip the moments in the released teaser where Changmin yanks his mic and kicks the stand away. And they turn it into a GIF. 

It goes on Naver and Twitter and Instagram minutes after the network releases the teasers on social media. The internet explodes. Changmin’s phone explodes too, from the notifications accumulating in his various messenger apps and social media networks. 

The friends who take his “on board a cruise ship cooking ok bye” SNS post at face value and believed him, are now pinging him in outrage, asking him why is his face showing up on national TV and did he lie to them or did he do this earlier in the year and he’s at sea now?

His mother sends him a screencap of his snarling face mid-kick and texts, this will be my face if you get disqualified before top three. Or if I do not meet Kwon BoA before you are kicked out.

His father merely adds on, Fighting!  

Some other enterprising fool with too much time on their hands decides to overlay the GIF with text hashtags. #SoDoneWithYourShit is one. #BurningFridayLETSEATTHIS and #FuckTheWeekImDone are other popular variations. They take on a life of their own, and give rise to mutated versions like #TooHotForYourKitchen , #IAmAChefAndICanSingToo and #ProduceX101isSo2k16IHAVEARRIVED.

Everyone starts quoting hashtags at him. Yet another idiot who is too technologically savvy for their own good puts stickers of the GIF on KakaoTalk, and Changmin gets sent his own face over and over again.

Seonyeob sends him a screenshot of Choidot’s Kakao group chat. Changmin’s been barred by Jinwoo from being readmitted into the group chat as long as he is in Sing! Idol, because he “can’t afford any distractions” according to his head chef, and certainly doesn’t need to know if the Korean beef delivery is late or how many truffled egg yolks they need to prep for the radish appetisers tonight. So he’s missing the group chat like a phantom limb.  

His sentimental feelings definitely cool when he looks at the screenshot shared by Seonyeob. The younger roundsmen and supporting kitchen assistants manage to have an entire conversation in Angry Rock Changmin stickers. Bunch of monkeys. They'll all die when he's back to kick their arses.

 

--

 

He doesn’t know what to do for the Dance challenge. He has to perform something. He thinks about seeking out Jaewon and the producers first, but he knows probably the producers will tell him to fail spectacularly so that they get amazing dramatic footage. 

Changmin knows he’ll fail. It just doesn’t sit well with him to fail doing nothing. 

He thinks about it, and goes to hunt Hyukjae and Victoria down. 

He hasn’t spoken to Yunho since he learnt how Yunho’s chest kind of looks like through semi-transparent white fabric, and the other man inhaled three pork ribs and two bowls of bean sprout rice and six bowls of seaweed soup. Anyway, going to Yunho won’t be a good choice. Yunho will have him doing the moonwalk or some modern street urban hip hop ballet thing. Changmin can’t even do a body wave. 

He’s got luck on his side. Victoria and Hyukjae are together, and they’re outside. The air is warmer today and they’re both in fitness attire and Victoria’s got her leg in the air in a crazy vertical split and she’s pirouetting to the faint strains of an English song that sounds vaguely familiar. There’s only one cameraman with them- Hyukjae’s. 

Hyukjae pauses the music playing from his phone when they notice him. “Changmin the winner!” he greets, teasing grin on his face. “Changjoo, get a close-up shot of our winner’s face right here!” 

Changmin shoves him half-heartedly, and ducks his head when Victoria nudges him in his side in greeting. Her elbows are a menace. “Hey…”

He doesn’t say anything else, just watches Victoria fold herself over to her knees gracefully, then arches upwards. There’s no music. Hyukjae’s not smiling anymore, face serious as he scratches at his neck and goes, “a bit more, Vic, straighten your leg and turn your toes more, forty-five degrees. Okay, that’s good, you need to point that straight, your left quadricep is leaning.” 

Victoria repeats the move until Hyukjae doesn’t say anything but a satisfied hum. 

“Are you okay, Changmin?” She wants to know, hair sweeping barely an inch from the ground. She pulls herself up into a standing position, every line in her body straight and taut. “What’s up?”

Changmin flicks a glance at Changjoo and the camera he’s holding. 

“You know what,” Hyukjae says easily, moving towards his cameraman, “we’re just practicing out here because it’s a bit warmer today. You’ve already gotten footage of Vic reviewing my dance, and me reviewing hers. I doubt you need that much footage of me waacking over and over again, or Vic drawing circles en pointe with her toe. Why don’t you rest a bit? You can check on the footage too to make sure the sun’s glare doesn’t spoil everything.”

Changjoo gives him a look that says he’s not fooling anyone, but packs up obediently and heads back to the mansion without a murmur. 

They’re quiet. It’s properly autumn, so the cicadas have probably all died out. Most of the flowers have wilted but the leaves are still a vibrant green slightly tinged with orange. Changmin oofs as Hyukjae mimics Victoria and drives another elbow into his side. 

“Did you want us to check your dancing?” Hyukjae asks bluntly. “It’s okay if you do. We do that for each other all the time.” 

“No, I…” Jesus, this is hard. Changmin scuffs a toe on the ground. Hyukjae waits.

“Idontevenknowwhattodanceto,” he says in a rush. 

Victoria gapes at him. “Changmin! You only have five more days!”

Hyukjae is patient, though. Changmin can see why he’s a dance teacher. “Do you have an idea of what dance song you want to do?”

Changmin shakes his head helplessly. “I don’t… listen to dance.”

Hyukjae pockets his phone. “What about pop? Do you listen to pop songs? The kind that have dances?” 

“A few?” Changmin says. 

“Like?” 

“Uh… Gangnam Style? Fantastic Baby? Gee?” Hyukjae’s face gets smoother with every song Changmin names. He tries again. “Sorry, Sorry?”

Victoria slaps a hand over her mouth but it doesn’t help. She bends over to howl with laughter. 

 

--

 

They’re back indoors, because Hyukjae insists that this needs proper smooth, wooden floors, and not packed earth where anyone can trip and break an ankle.  

He scrolls through his phone, and asks, “do you know how to sing any of the songs you named?”

There’s a clatter at the doorway. Jihwan comes through, with Changjoo. They wave hello with both cameras, red lights on like tiny pin-pricks of forever-omniscient eyes. 

Changmin says with a little too much defensiveness in his tone, “I can sing Sorry, Sorry.” 

“Can you?” He doesn’t know why, but there’s a pleased upward tick pulling at the edge of Hyukjae’s mouth. 

So Changmin does, singing the entire song from memory and even gamely rapping the rap sections. He doesn’t know the group who performed the song, but it was at the top of M.NET M!Countdown chart and it was everywhere on radio. When the song first came out, it was such an ear-worm that he kept singing it under his breath in the kitchen without even realising. It took Garam boxing his ears each time he started “Sorry sorry sorry sorry naega naega-” to consciously unlearn humming it. 

Victoria and Hyukjae look at each other when he finishes with a self-conscious “naega michyeo michyeo baby”.  

“Not bad….” Hyukjae says slowly. “Do you remember any iconic dance moves the song has?”

“This?” Changmin rubs his hands together like he’s cold, and then snaps his fingers twice while wiggling his legs. Then he slaps a palm on the side of his right foot as he hops, then his other palm on his left foot.  

Jihwan has a gleeful grin on his face as he nudges Changjoo to pan sideways, shifting for a different camera angle. 

Victoria loses it. She laughs so loud that Irene pokes her head through the doorway, startled. The cameramen get that, too. “I’m sorry,” she says, half-crying, “oh god- I’m so mean- Changmin, I’m so sorry- ignore me-”

Hyukjae does, frowning as he circles Changmin. Irene shakes her head and walks off.

“I mean, technically the moves are right,” Hyukjae says distractedly, “you just have no sense of rhythm. At all.”

That’s depressing. Changmin manages an “oh”. 

They both look at the heap of still-convulsing Victoria in the corner. “Ignore her,” Hyukjae advises briskly, “she’s not laughing because of you. She’s laughing because of me.” 

Changmin did not expect that. He shakes his head at Hyukjae, not comprehending. 

Hyukjae heaves a sigh and does the moves Changmin just did. On him it looks natural and slick and as though dancing is as easy as breathing. “I was part of the choreography team that did up this dance for those kids in the pop group. The one with too many members.”

Oh. Oh. Changmin is so mortified he thinks he can burst. “I’m so so so sorry I-” 

“No, no,” Hyukjae dismisses. “But you only have five days, I don’t think you can learn the entire song… No way around it. You just have to memorise what to do. Follow me.”

 

--

 

So now apparently he’s performing Sorry, Sorry for the upcoming dance challenge, because the amount of songs Changmin knows with dances can be counted on one hand.  

Hyukjae suggests that he should only perform certain iconic parts though, and save himself the undue stress of learning some of the more complicated locking maneuvers and movements that Changmin knows he can’t get right in five weeks, much less five days. 

After all, the rules did say that creative interpretation of the original dance numbers is allowed. Changmin’s creative interpretation is striding purposefully around the stage for half the time and looking busy. Then he only dances when the iconic chorus sounds.  

Victoria, after she calms down, tells him that at least he can make sure his breathing is regulated and he doesn’t go off-key in the song. Sing! Idol is a singing competition after all, and not a dance competition. 

He gets curious about the ballet gymnastics thing she was showing Hyukjae, and asks about it. Then he’s treated to the sight of Victoria dancing modern ballet whilst she sings Hozier’s Take Me to Church. She spins and dances and runs and does crazy giant leaps and generally just turns the song into modern art. 

“Wow!” He claps very hard when she’s done. She’s barely out of breath, even though she sang along to the backing track. 

She pulls an arm back, stretching. “I’m still editing it, though. I don’t want to sound too breathy. Yunho said I should go for a more stable framework, do less grand jetés and make their height count, instead.”  

Changmin jolts at the mention of Yunho. Victoria doesn’t notice. He tries to cover it up with, “what’s a grand jeté?”

“This,” she does it again, and it’s the crazy running leap she does again and again during the song. The entire move takes her halfway across the practice room.

“Oh, the running leap,” he says, and laughs when she pulls off her dirty ballet shoe to throw at his head. 

 

--

 

Hyukjae has taken it upon himself to become Changmin’s dance instructor. They even perform together to show Jaewon, or what bits he can see, because technically he’s not supposed to view the entire performance until recording day. He laughs long and loud at Changmin’s intense concentrated face as he attempts to mimic every single move Hyukjae does.

It’s not just him though. The dancers on a whole are just so good that Changmin doesn’t believe they’re real, and he’s not talking about their craft. They’re so kind and generous that they've learnt the dances for more than half of them - the half whose bodies don’t move as well.  

Victoria spent two full days walking Kyungsoo through a simplified tap dance routine whilst Wendy played accompaniment for them on the baby grand.   

The producers cackle very hard before deciding that yes, Team Dancers could afford to moonlight and put special appearances in the other contestants’ performances. 

Yunho volunteers as a backup dancer for all of Team BoA and Team Jongkook, except for Changmin. The dubious honour belongs to Hyukjae, and Donghae, who proves to be a closet fan of Sorry, Sorry ’s original artistes. Certainly he’s able to dance it so well that Hyukjae doesn’t have a single critique to give and instead offers, “are you sure you want to stay in football?”

Hyukjae waves his hand in dismissal after Yunho offers his services in aid of Changmin. “Nah, bro, you’ll tip the balance off,” he says. “Changmin’s tall. He needs two short guys (“Hey!” Donghae is offended.) to properly show him off in the best light possible.”

“I so can show Changmin off in the best light possible,” Yunho says, but he relents. Changmin just looks at the ceiling from the floor of the practice room where he’s sang and danced to Sorry, Sorry for the nth time, and tries to make sure he’s still alive. 

He’s not worked out properly since joining Sing! Idol. His exercise only entails push ups and crunches for forty minutes each day, and it shows. 

Chortling, Hyukjae takes pity on Changmin and cycles the track to Oppa, Oppa, which is Donghae’s song choice. He watches clinically as Donghae and Yunho practice the movements, and says, “so Changmin, you totally owe me for this, okay?”

“Kyuhyun’s already claimed one of my kidneys,” Changmin gasps. He needs an oxygen tank.  

Hyukjae scoffs, “why do I need your kidneys? You drink. I’m sure my kidneys are in better shape than yours.” Then his face appears upside down, in Changmin’s vision. “I’m talking about food.”

“Oh, yeah, yeah.” Changmin flaps a hand. “What do you want to eat?”  

“If you pass,” Hyukjae says, eyes wide and grin sharp, “then that’s totally my credit. I want you to tell everyone I’m your absolute favourite and you’ll love me forever and ever. And you’ll bake me pastries. I want strawberry bread. And cream puffs. And strawberry ice cream. And tiramisu.”  

“Done for the first, although I’m totally getting eliminated,” Changmin moans. “Sorry about the second though. I can’t bake.”

“What!” Hyukjae looks as though Changmin’s told him he’s a murderer. “What do you mean you can’t bake!”

“I mean I’m shit at pastries and bread.” Changmin sits up. His legs don’t feel like his own. Yunho and Donghae have finished only one cycle of the song, but they grab their water bottles and come over instead.  

Hyukjae scrubs two hands through his hair. “ Whaaaaaaaaaat? But you’re a chef!”

“I’m not a pastry chef,” Changmin shrugs. “I once made our restaurants’ signature bread amuse-bouche with my pastry chef Hyemi. She made sixty and I made sixty. Every single one of the sixty I made exploded into lumpy little messes out of the oven.” 

He pauses and takes stock of their expressions of shock. “We have an appetiser that requires making spun sugar spheres about the size of a palm. My boss invented that dish. It’s been three years. I still haven’t made a perfect round sugar sphere yet. They all break before they even reach marble size.”

The other three look at each other. Then:

Donghae, “What’s an amuse-bouche?”

Yunho, “But you always practice so hard, Changmin. Practice makes perfect!”

Hyukjae, “I want strawberry breeeeeaaaddddddd…” 

Changmin tries to get up but his legs feel like overcooked noodles. He lies back down. “An amuse-bouche is like. Something to kickstart a meal. Something to tease your mouth with. We serve it to customers when they come in, even before they order appetisers.” 

To Yunho, he shrugs, “when there’s no talent, there’s no talent. You can’t force it. I kept practising and the spheres just kept breaking. Then Hyemi threatened to break the sugar spheres on my face instead, so I stopped.”

He pats Hyukjae and promises to make him his favourite savouries, once Hyukjae has an idea what that is. “Or,” he says, “maybe After, you can come by Choidot. I’ll bribe Hyemi and her assistant Sunhwa to make you a strawberry feast.” 

 

--

 

He texts Hyemi. How do you make strawberry bread?

The reply is immediate even though they must be in the middle of lunch prep. Are you thinking of baking? Don’t. You’ll burn down the place. 

Changmin snorts. That little… He is still her senior in the kitchen. So you don’t have a recipe for strawberry bread? 

I would if you are more specific, she responds, sending him an Angry Rock Changmin sticker. It’s the one where he’s glaring and the editor’s placed fake flames over his eyelids. Are you asking about bread with strawberry filling? Or bread with glazed strawberries on top? Or just bread with strawberry baked in? What is this for? Are you trying to impress a girl? Or boy? 

Either type of bread, not fussy, he rolls his eyes and taps back. No, a fellow contestant helped in a performance and I want to thank him.

Your face is next to the word “fussy” in the dictionary. Bring them over when you all are released back in the real world, is her reply. Sunhwa and I can bake all the strawberry bread you want. All three types. Manjae has the worst crush on Tiffany and Garam says she wants to marry Minho. 

Garam tells me you want to marry Minho, he sends, and sniggers to himself as she replies him with a series of Angry Rock Changmins. 

 

--

 

They all run through their performances together, all fifteen of them the night before the recording of the Dance challenge. It’s a toss up between who will win, amongst the dancers and one dark horse - Hyukjae, Yunho, Victoria or Henry. 

Changmin thinks his song choice is fine. He’s practiced and practiced hard. Even dancing a simplified version of Sorry, Sorry, he doesn’t mind getting eliminated since he’s tried. 

He’s just sorry because he’ll miss this unlikely gang of people who’ve gathered from all walks of life. Somehow, he’s made friends. They’ve all become his friends. 

“You’re growing, Changmin,” Yunho’s grin at him is soft and it brings an ache to his chest. Or maybe it’s the exertion from all that dancing.  “Look at you. You’re dancing! Did you think you’ll be dancing all those months ago? With that body wave?” 

“Jesus no,” Changmin snorts. “I think the last proper dance I did was back in university at freshman orientation. All the freshies had to dance to Turbo’s Black Cat on orientation performance night.”

Yunho pats him on the back. “Don’t worry about tomorrow. You keep fidgeting like you know you’re going home. I’m not so sure.” 

Changmin just pats him back. As usual, Yunho’s a never-ending ball of enthusiasm and optimism. Privately, Changmin wonders if he ever gets exhausted. 

 

--

 

In the end, the Dance challenge is almost anticlimactic. 

Yunho wins it, of course, dancing Smooth Criminal and resplendent in a white suit and fedora decorated with a red armband. He does it almost Broadway style, complete with a speakeasy set up and mafia plot, pulling in a team of dancers from the dance academy where him and Hyukjae work.

His hair is swept back and they’ve gone minimal on his face today. Just dark brows and a slight smoky tinge to his eyes capped with eyeliner flicks to emphasise their cat-like tilt.  It shows off those same eyes beautifully under the harsh studio lights, narrowed in concentration as he belts out high notes and ad-libs whilst executing flawless spinning turns and split kicks that endanger the stretch of his trousers. 

Watching him from backstage is a pleasure for Changmin. On his shoulder, Hyukjae wails in feigned histrionics, bleating about his loss, but he quietens after his theatrics for the camera and simply enjoys Yunho’s performance, a proud grin on his face. 

Changmin wonders at Yunho, even as he bop his head along to the beat and basks in the joy of watching Jung Yunho perform. 

Yunho is born for the stage. So far, he’s been the forerunner that the cameras love, that already has fangirls even though they’re not quite halfway through the show. He’s been the only one of them to be able to sing and dance and rap and look beautiful doing it, although Henry, Amber and Hyukjae run a close second; and Taeyeon’s stage presence is just as strong. 

Why then, is Yunho only competing with the rest of them now

In a different life, Changmin thinks, he would be sitting up there with BoA, with Jongkook. Kings and Queens; entertainment royalty.

He doesn’t get to puzzle over this more. Yunho’s performance is over, to the consternation of the audience. They clamour for more, and the backstage bustle starts again, preparing for the next contestant. 

Yes, the Dance Challenge is anti-climatic for Changmin, in that it holds no surprises for him.

It’s the one after it, that changes him. 

 

--

 

Sorry sorry sorry sorry 

내가 내가 내가 먼저 네게 네게 네게 빠져 

빠져 빠져 버려 baby 

Shawty shawty shawty shawty 

눈이 부셔 부셔 부셔 숨이 막혀 막혀 막혀 

내가 미쳐 미쳐 baby

-- SORRY, SORRY. 

 

Chapter Text

 

“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.

 

Chapter Text

 

“I play the piano, the flute, the saxophone, the guitar… I’m not bragging. It’s just that my parents were music-crazy while I was growing up. I got the chance to learn all these kick-[bleep] instruments and I am just so, so grateful to them.” 

-- Wendy SHON (25), jazz pianist. 


“I actually don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m happy in football! But I also like to sing. So hey! Why not? Maybe this can be my retirement plan.”

-- LEE Donghae (33), footballer.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Judges’ Challenge winner: TIFFANY

 

It’s different now. Everything is different now. 

They’re midway through the competition, and it’s like a veil has been lifted from his eyes. Somehow, these people, crazy and passionate and sincere and fun, make him want to be here. They make him want to stay. They make him want to try and be more, be better.

He doesn’t quite understand it.

He rings Hyunseok the night of the Judges’ Challenge recording, excusing himself from Kyuhyun to take the call outside, in the garden. 

It’s night, and it’s the beginning of November. There’s a definite chill in the air. The flowers and most of the leaves are gone, the last remnants of summer. 

Changmin’s got his old KyungHee University hoodie thrown on, the crimson faded, two tees beneath with a baggy pair of track bottoms pulled on, and two pairs of socks jammed into his trainers. 

He wanders amongst the shrubbery until he sinks into a bench; it’s the one Jooyoung and Jihwan filmed his introductory segment on, three months ago. 

The phone’s ringing, but no one’s picked up. He sneaks a peek at his watch. It’s eleven pm. The Choidot team should be done with cleaning up by now, Hyunseok should be having a shot of whisky with his carbonated water and is probably laughing at the team’s antics-

The call connects. A breathless “hello?” sounds in his ear.

“Hey, boss man,” Changmin says, and to his extreme horror, feels his nose start to smart, and his vision blurs. 

“Changmin?” Hyunseok asks, then pulls his phone away, judging by how he shouts, “guys, it’s Changmin- I’m taking this! Manjae, if you fuck up the grill, Jinwoo will have to fuck you up, then I’ll have to fuck you both up. Don’t fuck up.”

There’s the sound of a door closing, and then his boss’ voice comes back, clearer. There’s less background noise.

Then, “Changmin?” Hyunseok asks again.

“Hi, boss,” Changmin kicks at the ground. “How was the dinner rush today? What did Manjae do? Did he use cold water to wash the grill again?”

“Did you call me just to check if we’re going under?” There’s a tremor of laughter in Hyunseok’s voice that Changmin hears, even through the phone line. It’s comforting. “Dinner was good. We were full house. No, it’s worse than you thought. Manjae was leaning against the grill to fight some person on some message boards on your behalf. He got too excited and the grill fell over.”

“What?” Changmin thinks he’s hearing things. He no longer feels like crying. “Manjae what? Our Manjae? Sweet Manjae who thinks Marco Pierre White is a misunderstood man and Park Geunhye was badly influenced? Our Manjae? He’s fighting? What? Over me?”

“He’s defending your honour,” Hyunseok says, sounding like he’s enjoying himself too much. “Before I left the kitchen, he was shouting about how he’ll break all their backs and then leave them to burn to ash in a giant forest fire.”

“Them? Them who?” Changmin doesn’t understand. In the corner of his eye, he espies movement. He turns halfway in his seat. It’s Yunho, a faint shadow in the darkness of the garden.

“Them your anti-fans,” Hyunseok says, letting out a chuckle. Yunho makes to come over, but sees that Changmin is on the phone. Sorry, he mouths, turning to go. Changmin waves him over, a jerky probably spastic flap, and barks at the phone, “what? I have anti-fans? What’s an anti-fan?”

Yunho looks askance at the phone in his hand. Changmin points to the space next to him in mute invitation, and shifts a little over. Yunho is only dressed in a windbreaker (either the man is really insane or his body temperature runs too high) and shorts. It’s an oddly charming picture. 

Hyunseok drawls, “you have anti-fans and fans. An anti-fan is not a fan. The antithesis of a fan? Seems like you’re the subject of a fanwar,” and Changmin focuses his attention back on his phone.

He feels like he’s fourteen again and Hyunseok is rattling off too many French cooking terms at him. “What is a fanwar?” 

Yunho sits down next to him, crossing his legs.

“A war between fans, I would say,” Hyunseok says, and then he raises his voice. There’s background noise again- he must be back in the kitchens. “What’s the fanwar on Changmin about?”

Manjae’s voice sounds, the loudest and angriest Changmin’s ever heard him. “-Kill them all, have you seen such stupidity- How do these people even survive-” 

Garam shouts into the phone, “is that Changmin? Tell him I’m boycotting BoA for him!” and Changmin feels like he’s lost not just the plot but logic apparently went and set itself on fire too since the last time he’s checked.

Yunho’s propped an arm against the bench, cupping his chin in a hand. He's scrubbed clean, fresh-faced and devoid of all vestiges of stage makeup and more handsome than Changmin's ever seen him. “What did Garam say? Did I hear her correctly? Why’s she boycotting BoA?”

Yunho shifts. 

“Apparently there’s a video leak making its rounds on Nate and Naver and Daum, and it’s of- what was it, Sunhwa? Ah, the recording you guys had today? Some girl filmed BoA’s criticism of you and the subsequent decision to resuscitate you,” Hyunseok goes on, egged on by background commentary from Garam and Manjae, “and you have fans defending you and screaming at the network for doing something so controversial just to pull ratings. Then there’s another camp who are defending BoA’s decision to rip you a new asshole- what did that anti say, Manjae? Ah yes, that you should be grateful BoA’s noticed you enough to gift you a new asshole.” 

The only thing Changmin can focus on is, “there was a leak for tonight’s challenge? The episode is only airing next week!”

Yunho looks at him, eyebrows raised. Changmin shrugs helplessly at him. 

“Well, it’s - oh, really? Jinwoo just refreshed the page and he says the video has been taken down,” Hyunseok reports. “But the fanwar is still ongoing and now they are crying about you and the other boy, the anchovy-looking one? Hyuk something. There’s too many people competing with you and I can’t keep their names straight.” 

“The producers probably have someone monitoring social media,” Changmin says, shaking his head and mouthing back, got removed, at Yunho.

Yunho nods, and shivers. 

In his ear, Hyunseok is still going, “-good to hear from you, though. I know we’ve all been texting you continuously, but it’s still different from getting to talk. How has it been? How are you? You’re enjoying yourself, aren’t you? You look like you are, in the episodes we’ve watched. And they let you cook! Those burners are a disgrace though.”

“They’re all electric, it’s horrible, heat control is patchy at best, also the production team has an odd fascination with getting me to cook, but I think that’s because they probably can’t get any other interesting footage of me otherwise. Cameras are everywhere,” Changmin shares, while he makes a concerned face at Yunho.

He pulls his arms out of his hoodie, switching arms in the middle to keep his phone pressed to his ear, and pulls the whole thing over his head.

Yunho’s looking at him like he’s lost his head stripping in the cool night air. Changmin shakes his head and drops the hoodie in Yunho’s lap. 

“You shouldn’t have, you’ll get cold too,” Yunho whispers, but Changmin shakes his head again and pulls at his tee, showing him there’s another collar beneath. Yunho emits an “oh” and sits back, spreading Changmin’s hoodie over his lap. 

Hyunseok laughs, “you look like a startled bird whenever the camera follows you and you turn around to make eye contact with the viewer,” and Changmin scrunches his face at Yunho and mimes wearing something. 

To Hyunseok, he says, “they keep telling me I should be used to the cameras by now, but it’s a little hard when you don’t even know you’re being followed. Then you turn around and there’s a giant black lens in your face.” 

There’s something fleeting and unreadable in Yunho’s eyes, something uncertain, but he moves and pulls Changmin’s hoodie over his head. Red is a good look on him. 

Hyunseok is making fussing noises and telling him he should rest, so Changmin says distractedly, “all right, I miss all of you, talk soon,” and disconnects the call.

He smiles at Yunho, who’s pulled Changmin’s hoodie down so much that it nearly covers his shorts, as well. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Yunho returns, smiling back. “You okay?” 

“Yeah,” Changmin says, after thinking about it. He is. There’s still a bit of anxiety that he’ll wake up and BoA’s Judge’s Chance is actually a dream, and he’s on the way home. 

But he’s actually feeling pretty good, like tonight fell the scales from his eyes. “I actually am. Are you okay?”

Yunho blinks at him, “Yeah, I guess? Why wouldn’t I be? I just wanted to check if you’re okay, because you looked shell-shocked just now at the briefing for next week.” 

Changmin feels such a rush of warmth that he finds himself beaming at the man. For some reason, Yunho looks extremely surprised. His jaw is a little slack. “Thanks, yes. I am. I didn’t think I would be. And I meant about Hyukjae and Victoria.” 

“Oh,”Yunho’s gaze turns shadowed. “Yeah. I can’t deny that I’m disappointed,” he rubs at the back of his neck, frowning at the ground, “especially for Hyuk. He’s an amazing performer.” 

“I’m sorry BoA gave her Judge’s Chance to me instead,” Changmin says honestly, and is taken aback by the fierce glare Yunho levels at him. 

“Don’t say that,” Yunho growls, hands tucked into the pocket of Changmin’s hoodie. He leans forward, gaze intent on Changmin, mouth hard. “Don’t. Changmin, you have this bad habit of putting yourself down to elevate everyone else. Don’t do that. You’re amazing, and that was the whole point of BoA’s feedback. I was listening to it too. She wanted you to see how you are more, and can be more. The first step in doing that is actually giving yourself credit where credit’s due.”

“Okay,” Changmin says hazily, because Yunho’s full unrelenting attention is not for the faint of heart. He fights an urge to shrink and look away. “Sorry. Sorry. Okay.”

Yunho’s the one who looks away then, with an embarrassed laugh. “No, I’m the one who should be sorry. Sorry. I shouldn’t have jumped down your throat like that. Just… you shouldn’t. I’m sorry, I’m lecturing you.”

“No, no,” Changmin demurs, and the whole ridiculous thing whereby they keep apologising to each other over things that don’t quite require apologising would have continued, if Yunho didn’t shiver again. 

“Haaaaa no not good,” Changmin says; and then before he knows it he’s briskly shepherding Yunho into the back of the mansion, through the mudroom and they’re in the kitchen. 

 

-- 

 

“It was colder than I expected,” Yunho admits, taking a seat at the counter. Changmin turns narrowed eyes on him, one hand opening the fridge. “Than you expected? It’s November! You’re in shorts!”

“Barely,” Yunho makes a dismissive moue. He pats at Changmin’s hoodie. “This is really warm, though. Thank you.”

“That old thing?” Changmin brays, and hopes he doesn’t sound like a hyena. Now that they’re out of the cold, it seems like his brain is thawing. He can’t believe he gave Yunho his hoodie.

But he looked cold. Changmin wanted to hug him. At least his hoodie is hugging him. Oh what the fuck brain. “It’s been around for sometime.” 

“It’s very well taken care of,” Yunho says, and to Changmin's horror, he lifts the collar and sniffs at it. Oh fuck oh dear sweet fuck Changmin’s slept in that thing. Changmin’s sweated in that thing. And Yunho’s smelt it. Taken a long luxurious sniff at it and he’s rubbing his face at the inside of the hoodie what the fucking hell Yunho. Shit, Changmin’s going to have Fantasies about this, and he knows now who’s going to star in it. He’s never going to wash this hoodie again. He’ll hang it in a place of honour. He’s going to wear it and jerk off. 

Yunho’s still talking, “-it’s really comforting because it smells so familiar too. I think you use the same brand of softener my mum does, whenever I visit her.”

Oh, great, his not-a-crush-but-kind-of-a-crush just compared him to his scent memory of his mother. Changmin’s hard-on dies an abrupt death. He squeaks, and names the brand he uses. 

“That’s the one!” Yunho enthuses, all crinkly eyes and white teeth. His hair is ruffled and un-styled and he looks like he walked out of a university admissions photoshoot. “She always makes me bring my clothes to her, whenever I visit home, and she looks so happy doing my laundry that I just can’t help but bring some of it along when I can drive down. Yeah, that’s the brand she uses.”

Changmin clears his throat, and looks properly at what his hands are doing. Somehow he’s got the ingredients for hot chocolate laid out, and there’s chocolate melting in a water bath and fine, he’s just going to go along with muscle memory. He hopes Yunho actually likes hot chocolate. “So home’s not Seoul?”

Yunho’s expression freezes, and Changmin hurries to say, while whisking at the chocolate in the water bath, “only because it sounds far! Your family home. Where you. Visit your mum. And all.” 

“Yeah, she lives in Gwangju. It’s about three, four hours by road?” Yunho clears his throat. “KTX takes about two hours, but I prefer to drive. Jeollado’s scenery is beautiful.” 

“Oh,” Changmin blinks. He’s got milk warming in another saucepan. “But you don’t have an accent. Not that satoori is bad,” he hurries to clarify.  

Yunho’s smile wanes.

“I left home when I was a teenager,” he says. His face is wooden; it’s a complete turnabout from the Yunho Changmin’s used to seeing, usually mobile, usually expressive. “I don’t- the relationship with my father isn’t... good. We’re not close. I mean, he’s trying now, but. I don’t want to put my mum in a position where she has to choose. These days she tries to take the train up at least once monthly to visit me.”

“Oh, I. I’m sorry,” Changmin stammers, mortified that he’s opened what is clearly a touchy subject, but Yunho shrugs and offers a weak variation of the sunshine grin Changmin’s used to seeing on him. “Don’t be, Changminnie. It’s not like you knew. And I was the one who started talking about it, wasn’t I?” 

“Have some hot chocolate,” Changmin says frantically, in lieu of actually having anything comforting to say. He places a steaming mug in front of Yunho, who bows slightly in his seat and curves both hands around the mug’s porcelain body. 

Yunho takes a long drink, over Changmin’s concerned squawk of “don’t not so fast you’ll burn your tongue!” and gives a sigh. “Oh, this is so good. How did you know I love hot chocolate? I force myself to drink Americanos, or even mochas, but hot chocolate is the best. You’re quite a genius in the kitchen, Changminnie, aren’t you?”

“Lucky guess. And it’s just melted chocolate and milk,” Changmin squeaks again, face probably as red as the hoodie on Yunho. 

 

--

 

Youngmin had told them last night that the next Challenge was minimal, and simple- in the truest sense of the word. It is going to be Unplugged Week, and their song choices either have to be acoustic or a cappella

Changmin turns BoA’s words over and over in his head, analysing and dissecting, and he decides to take Taeyeon up on her offer. 

Jihwan’s still down with the flu, so it’s another cameraman that has been following him around, and he’s junior and not so nosy so he mostly hangs back to get wide shots of Changmin. He’s panning between Changmin and Taeyeon’s room door now. 

Changmin knocks on her door. She opens it precisely eight seconds after. “What?” her tone is brusque, then she sees Changmin. “Oh. It’s you.”

“Can I take you up on the guitar lessons?” Changmin asks, after a long, straight-backed bow to her.

Her face is blank. “You’re older than me.”

“You’re going to be my teacher.” He tries a smile on her.

She’s unmoved. “Fine. Let me get my guitars.”

“Guitars ?” Changmin echoes, dragging the ‘s’,  then shifts to wait for her.

The girls all have a single room to themselves each, and he peers in slightly, curious despite himself. She’s got lots of music scores around, piled untidily, but at least the bed’s made and her shoes are shoved to one end of the room.

She comes out from where she was at the far end, holding onto two guitars. One’s a pale wood, and in a more rounded shape, whilst the other is stained a richer mahogany brown. The pale one has a shape more reminiscent of a very confused figure 8, and the other one has interesting curves near the top. 

“Practice room,” she orders, when Changmin makes to head outside. “You need an enclosed space to hear the differences first.”

“Differences in what?” Is Changmin’s question, but he goes unanswered and follows her anyway.

She sets up, and puts the blobby figure 8 guitar gently on his lap. It’s the opposite of how she usually is- curt, efficient, rude, rough and occasionally funny by complete accident. “This one is easier to play for beginners. Hold it properly.” 

He hugs the guitar awkwardly. It’s a lot bigger than the electric guitar that he performed on. She shows him the correct way to cradle it, shaping his arms about it. 

“How much do you know about guitars,” she says abruptly, looking at him. Her roots have grown out, and she’s pulled her hair into a messy blonde-and-black topknot. 

“Um.” Changmin clears his throat. “Not much? Mihawk,” naming the show’s studio band guitarist, ”showed me the finger positions for the scales when he taught me the notes for Rock With U last week. A very very long time ago my parents sent me for violin lessons as a young boy so I can still vaguely read a score. I felt the bow made a better sword, though.”

“That was bullshit. You only played 4 notes in accompaniment,” Taeyeon counters frankly, ignoring his half-baked joke, but there’s no censure in her tone. She looks at Changmin’s fingers resting on the fretboard - the long neck of the guitar. “How many scales do you know? Did he teach you all of them? Let’s start from C major. Show me.”

She makes him do the left-handed fingering for C major, then D, and all the way up to B, and then the flat majors. There’s no smile on her face, but she does go, “at least you know where the notes are. Your positions are all done by memorising, right? Fine. Show me the minors. C natural now.” 

“What’s a C natural minor?”

Taeyeon looks up from where she’s staring a hole into his fingers. “Never mind. I’ll explain later. Show me what you know when you think of C minor then.” 

He stumbles through E, B, G minors instead, or what he remembers of them, and then shakes his head. Taeyeon makes a considering hum. “Not bad. I thought we’ll have to start from scratch.”

“This isn’t starting from scratch?” Changmin says, and wiggles his right hand at her. “What about my right hand?”

“Learn how to walk before you run,” Taeyeon reaches out and grasps his right hand with the ends of two fingers, lifting it and dropping it to the side like it’s a dead rat. “Again. Left hand, show me E minor.”

She’s a good teacher, surprisingly enough. Blunt, factual and unemotional, just “do it again” when he inadvertently makes a mistake.

Changmin looks up to realise they’ve spent an hour doing left-handed fingerings on the fretboard. His right hand is just cupping the guitar body, as support.

At the very end, she gives him a pick and lets him pluck at the strings. “You can do that with your fingers too, but most beginners use a pick because the skin on their finger pads can’t quite withstand- see?” She shows him her fingers. 

They’re rough and the skin overlying them is scarred and slightly yellow in places. “I prefer using my fingers to pluck. The sound is slightly different. Warmer. Better for control, too.” 

Changmin uses the pick, and sets his fingers in the position for a B. The sound that comes is too soft. “Oh.” 

Taeyeon just puts his hand back against the strings. “Again, but harder. Then pluck at it like this.” She shows him with her fingers on the mahogany guitar, then uses another pick for the movement so he can copy it.

The sound that comes out is clear, crisp, a bright twang. He tries it again, without the pick. “Oh! It’s so different from the electric guitar.”

Taeyeon scoffs. “Electric anything is like a cheat code. You don’t have to do projection, no one cares really about intonation, tuning is easy, you can add a million strings so fingering is easier… Strum one note and make it blare and the crowd goes crazy like you’re flinging dollar bills at them. It’s like ordering a fucking Happy Meal then passing it off as fucking organic free range chicken steak.”

“I didn’t understand any of that except that end bit about the Happy Meal,” Changmin says truthfully, and laughs when she rolls her eyes at him. 

She thinks, cradling the other guitar and tapping out an absent-minded beat against its body. “Electric means plugged. Something vital in instruments, from smaller ones like strings to the piano or even a trumpet, or percussion or even your voice is projection and intonation. Unplugged, a musician may have to position himself in a certain angle, play notes or perform certain manoeuvres in a certain formation to give certain emotions, no matter the instrument, when it’s unplugged. It’s human technique and human skill and human control.”

Her finger do something quick and a silvery string of notes emits from her guitar. “With electrical amplification, you can do things like make sure you are always in tune, that you don’t need to know control and skill, you just need to press certain things and bam. It’s like driving with a stick shift versus an automatic but worse. At least with an automatic car, even with a digital screen lining out where you should park, you still need to control the wheel minimally on your own.”

Changmin’s trying to nod along, but he knows she can see that she’s mostly lost him. 

She plucks another note, and then brightens. It’s the most animated he’s seen her. “Auto-tune. You know what auto-tune is, right? It’s like how you can scream in a recording booth and even if it’s off-key, machines can take care of it for you. But unplugged and live means you actually have to be on key and sing with technique.”

“You’re a purist,” Changmin summarises, and laughs when she frowns at him. 

“So are you,” she counters. “It’s like how you cook for us sometimes. The production team buys microwavable meals and canned food and takeout for us, right? But then you cook for us, and you always go for the freshest ingredients they make available to us, and you make almost everything from scratch, especially your sauces. That’s unplugged, in your world.”

“Oh,” Changmin says. He gets it now. 

She gives him a tiny smile. It’s the first she’s given, he thinks. “Have you chosen your song already?”

“Yes.” Changmin says, and dares to continue, “and actually, I want to play accompaniment to it. Hence I’m here prostrate for your help. I even found the score online. It’s a famous song, so they have variations. I’m picking the beginner one.”

“Prostrate,” she scoffs. “Which song is it?” She tells him hers, blunt.

Changmin blinks at her, turning it over in his head. “I can see you singing it,” he decides.

“Can you?” She plucks out a four-chord opening bar, and goes, voice steady and sure and poignant, “we were sad of getting old, it made us restless. It was just like a movie. It was just like a song.” 

Changmin tells her his, and watches her eyebrows go up. “Ballsy,” she says, and the hint of smile is back, “in that the melody is so clean there’s nowhere you can hide. And a very good counter to your performance this week.” 

“I want to show her that I’m really thankful for her advice, and I will try my best to push myself,” Changmin explains. He doesn’t need to say who ‘her’ is; they both know. 

Taeyeon just scoffs again and nudges the guitar back against his chest. “You’re such a pathetic fanboy. Show me the scales for G major, then.” 

 

--

 

Changmin practices, and practices. 

It’s good that his palms are already calloused and scarred from years of cooking. Taeyeon graduates him into practicing his accompaniment score with both hands, and to using his fingers to pluck instead of a pick. 

She also loans him her blobby figure 8 guitar; a Dreadnought, she says, which is just two words strung together and don’t make any sense to him at all.

When Changmin confesses to her that he just calls it “the blobby figure 8 guitar” in his head, she doesn’t laugh, but her lips flatten out suspiciously before returning to their usual neutral frown.

“Break it and I break you,” she warns. “If you want to use a guitar after this week, get your own.”

Irene gapes at him when she finds out. “You got Taeyeon to give you lessons?” She throws a cushion at him. They’re in the main living room waiting to watch a broadcast teaser of Judges’ Challenge. The two of them are early and waiting for the rest of the twelve (there’s only an even dozen of them now) to pop in.

His near loss last week has apparently turned into a giant fandom -Changmin’s still not quite sure he knows what a fandom is- drama involving lots of Internet shouting and there are strangers for him and against him and decrying BoA and also supporting her and more people saying that they’re all attention whores and he should have been ditched a million years ago with Hyukjae and Minho reinstated and BoA is a pop culture has-been and Jongkook and Jaewon are weaklings that should have controlled her. 

Hyunseok and Jinwoo and also his sisters have been texting him multiple updates daily, but Changmin just ignores them all and keeps on practising. 

The only person that he replies is his father, who had dropped him a text saying, your mother is in bed with a cold compress and she is saying alternately that she wants to burn all her BoA albums and also have her as a daughter-in-law. Changmin just laughs and taps out the reply, remind her I’m gay.

His father sends only love you, work hard back. 

Irene’s pouting. “I want Taeyeon to give me lessons,” she moans. “I tried to touch her guitar and she cursed at me.”

“I bet you didn’t ask nicely,” Changmin sniffs, and sniggers when Irene slams another cushion into his face.

 

--

 

It’s not Yoonju working on his styling this week, which is a relief, since they’re doing acoustic renditions and Changmin doesn’t think leather or lace or whatever crazy material Yoonju’s fixated on on a weekly basis would work.

Instead it’s a meeker girl called Eun-ah, and Changmin knows her by sight. She’s the one behind the faithful Michael Jackson replicas that Yunho had put on, and for draping Zhou Mi’s lanky body in sharp-looking suits and classic cuts. 

Changmin mentions his song title to her when they’re huddling at the makeup rooms in the studio’s backstage warrens, and then asks her if she thinks he can wear his own clothes. 

Jooyoung’s sitting in at his meeting with her, eyes sharp, and Jihwan’s next to him, camera propped up on a tripod. They have very clearly excluded themselves from the conversation though, because Jooyoung’s leaning back to stare at the two of them through Jihwan’s camera monitor instead. 

“Your own clothes,” Eun-ah says doubtfully, but Changmin presses, “because it’s unplugged, you see? Stripped down to the bare minimum. I was thinking a white shirt and jeans, my own. I’ll be playing the guitar.” 

She’s silent, and then she goes, “show me?”

So they head back to the mansion, Jihwan in tow, and Changmin pulls out the white shirt and faded blue jeans he’s already selected from his wardrobe. 

Eun-ah looks from it, to his face, eyes roving on odd parts of him like his waist and then she stares very long at his thighs. Changmin ignores this discomfort of having someone stare with such focus at the general area of his crotch. He knows she’s working. 

“It’s doable,” she muses, “let’s have you go barefoot, too. Stripped down, right? Minimalist. And then we’ll ask Hyeyoung to sweep your bangs back and just go for a nude makeup look, maybe with loads of highlighter and bronzer to bring out those cheekbones-”

“Sure,” he says, shrugging, and she very clearly ignores him to continue brainstorming out loud how they can maybe alter his shirt very slightly at the cuffs so they fall back to reveal his wrists whenever he plucks at the guitar.

 

--

 

The Judges’ Choice Challenge airs, and if the chatter leading up to it is considered “dramatic”, the public reaction during and after the episode showing can probably be called “madness”. 

BoA’s name and his leap to the top of the search rankings on Naver and Daum, and some anonymous person hidden behind a sock account starts a hate page that calls for signatures to remove him and bring Hyukjae back. Another page also calls for a similar removal, but is pushing for Victoria to take his place. 

Jiyeon texts him a screenshot of someone else who’s set up a Twitter page that proclaims itself “Changmin Daily” and promises multiple updates throughout the day on his doings. The rest of the contestants are very amused. Zhou Mi even laughs and teases that Kyuhyun must be the admin, because he would be the one person able to get shower pictures and know when Changmin is eating and practicing and drinking and sleeping. 

Henry tells him this is good news, because “any form of publicity is free publicity, dude. I think Dispatch went to your restaurant too and there’s like a long queue there.” 

“Not my restaurant,” Changmin says absent-mindedly, fingers intent on Taeyeon’s guitar. He mutters a curse as he switches positioning and his finger slips and he plays a D instead of a G. “And we operate on a reservations-only booking system. No walk-ins.”

Hyunseok had actually sent him a picture of that, with a string of Happy Rock Changmins, and the message, you’re bad for business, now they’re all queueing like I’m a McDonald’s. Don’t come back until you’ve won the thing, love you and we’ll be watching. Changmin fighting!   

“Yeah, I don’t think your fans know that,” Henry says, and Changmin hunches further over the guitar and repeats the phrase, because he keeps lagging when he has to change his right hand from strumming to plucking. 

 

--

 

He goes on stage, clutching Taeyeon’s guitar with one sweaty hand. The crowd murmurs when they notice his bare feet. 

He sits and crosses his legs, the guitar balanced in the vee of his thighs. 

The stage lights are on and Changmin can’t see outside of his immediate vicinity again. 

He smiles in what he remembers is the general direction of the judges, and says into the mic adjusted at the left side of his face, “this is for the judges. I’m not very good with words and I don’t know actually if we’re allowed to talk before our performances,” a ripple of laughter, “but I just want to thank them for trying hard with us, and pushing us and believing in us. Thank you.”

He adjusts the second mic so it sits near the sound-hole, and tweaks at the tuning pegs one last time, like Taeyeon had taught. He does a quick strum to check they’re in tune.

Then he sets his fingers on the guitar, left on the fretboard, right at the strings, and begins. 

 

-- 

 

Imagine all the people

Sharing all the world.

You may say that I'm a dreamer,

 But I'm not the only one.

I hope someday you'll join us 

And the world will live as one.

-- IMAGINE.

 

Chapter Text

 

“I mean, this was my mom’s homeland, and she raised me speaking Korean, so it wasn’t a hard stretch to buy a one-way ticket to Seoul from the casting couches in LA. My mom would have been super proud! But my Korean’s still bad, so yeah, I need to look for a tutor.” 

-- Tiffany HWANG (30), actress.


“Funnily enough, my CEO was the one who suggest I come try out at Sing! Idol. I think I’ve been irritating the other girls too much with my singing backstage whenever we walk.”

-- Irene BAE (28), model.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Unplugged Challenge winner: TAEYEON

 

Taeyeon wins and Donghae goes home, and there’s barely half (eleven now) of them left. The head producers are in a great mood, grinning and joking with each other and the staff, even as the contestants shuffle backstage for the customary post-show briefing for the upcoming week.

Kyuhyun nudges Changmin. “I heard they’re all high because of the drama between you and BoA. We shot to first in ratings last night.”

“There’s no drama between BoA and I,” Changmin objects, indignant for her sake. “I’m her fan!”

“So it’s not longer just your mother, huh?” A new voice interrupts them, and Changmin turns to see the woman herself. Oh shit. He rewinds mentally what he just said. Jesus.

She laughs at him, and pats him on the arm. “Best decision I ever made on this show.” Her gaze slides slyly to Kyuhyun, who’s Team Jongkook, and back to him. “You’re going to be my secret weapon to take down Jongkook. He’s been too smug for too long.”

“Hey,” Kyuhyun protests out of reflex. “You’re not supposed to be biased.”

“I’m off-camera,” she says, still patting Changmin. “I’m allowed to be.”

“There are cameras around, still,” Kyuhyun points out logically, then shrinks when she turns the full force of her gaze on him. “It’s the truth!”

“Does he annoy you?” BoA asks Changmin instead, though her eyes are locked on Kyuhyun. “Shall I make him disappear?”

“What,” Kyuhyun yelps, and BoA laughs again, heading off to join Jaewon when he beckons to her. Changmin tries, but he can’t quite keep a straight face. 

“Mate, stop giggling. She’s psychotic. How do you guys stand her?” Kyuhyun moans, then gives a little scream when Taeyeon appears at his elbow. Her expression is not unlike BoA’s. “Shit! There’s another one of her! Mini Me!”

Taeyeon ignores his hysterics and holds her hand out to Changmin. “My guitar.”

“Er, yes!” Changmin has the case clutched tightly against his chest, and he gives it over to her carefully with both hands. She flips it open, looking the Dreadnought over with a critical eye. “Good. You wiped it down and tuned it.”

“I kind of sweated all over it,” he said honestly, and flinches out of habit when she levels him with one of her glares. There’s a twitch to the corner of her mouth, so he’s not too worried. She walks off and sits in the corner, her eyes on the head producers. Soyoung and Youngmin look like they are arguing about something. Youngjin has got the three judges with him. 

There’s a bit of a lull, then Zhou Mi comes to join them. “You have the best luck with the girls,” he informs Changmin, to whom this is news.

“What?” Changmin blinks. Kyuhyun looks like his Christmas has just come early.

“Taeyeon?” Zhou Mi asks, then points out, “Tiffany, Wendy, Irene. They all like you. And Amber, even though she’s on my team, and I’m not sure if you can classify her as a girl. Victoria thought you were nice too, but she’s gone.”

Kyuhyun just laughs at his own teammate so hard that he stumbles sideways.

The only thing Changmin picks out is, insulted on Amber’s behalf, “Amber likes to have short hair and wearing trousers but that doesn’t make her not a girl if she feels like she is a girl.”

He yelps when a hand gooses down his back, indecently low, and turns to see it’s Amber, grinning. “Props for that, you sweetheart, and that’s why we love you,” she coos exaggeratedly at him, then points two of her fingers at her eyes, then at Zhou Mi. Zhou Mi sticks his tongue out at her.

“Attention,” Soyoung says, and claps her hands twice. They all stop fooling around and focus on her.

“I’m sure some of you have already heard,” she says, smiling, “but we achieved first in ratings last night, for the Judges’ Choice challenge.”

Cue clapping and catcalls. Someone whistles, loud and off-key.

“That doesn’t mean we are going to rest on our laurels,” she continues. Yunho’s front and centre as usual, and he’s nodding fiercely along. “I’ve got two pieces of news for you. Following the Unplugged Challenge, you now will prepare for a Battle royale next week, between two extremes in musical genres. Musicals and rap.”

She pauses, but everyone is too shocked to react. The cameramen have their lenses focused on their individual contestants. ”The eleven of you will do a random draw now, to decide which of the genres you will focus on. You have to come up with your song choice by tomorrow evening; and also let us and the production team know if you have any special requests on sets or blocking. This is not a challenge split amongst teams. Contestants on the same teams, if random draw determines it, may perform numbers from the two different genres.”

Chanyeol throws a fist in the air and goes, “yeah! It’s rap time!” 

Soyoung gives a perfunctory smile in his direction and says, “The top two contestants will sing a second song, of the genre they picked, to duke it out in a one-versus-one showdown. Hence, 'battle royale'. The lowest scoring contestant as determined by the audience voting system will go home. Yes; if you score well for your first song but badly for your second song, there is a chance for your elimination, as well.”

As if this isn’t enough of a doozy, Youngmin takes over. “We’ve got another piece of news for you too. Because the broadcast network has a festival coming up that will be airing in Sing! Idol’s time slot for a fortnight, we’ve discussed with management and agreed that after the Battle Challenge next week, we’ll pause filming since we have a backlog of episodes, anyway.”

He looks around at them, noting that their expressions are mostly confused, and adds with a chuckle. “It means you guys can head home for two weeks, before we resume filming.”

 

--

 

Changmin draws 'musicals', together with Kyuhyun and Wendy, which is a relief. Dance was already pushing his limit. He doesn’t think he can do rap as well, unless it’s barking out dinner orders at rush hour. Even that he still has some difficulty with. 

Chanyeol gives such a loud whoop that everyone knows he’s drawn “rap”, similar to how everyone knows Tiffany’s got “rap” as well, from her despairing shriek. 

Changmin doesn’t pay much attention to the rest of them, already thinking about what song choices he wants to sing and rifling through the musicals he knows in his head. The first time he saw a musical live was when Hyunseok left Elbon the Table in Jinwoo’s more than capable hands and took him on a food trip his self-imposed gap year, after freshman Changmin broke down from the stress of being in school and in a full-time job as a roundsman. 

They went to Venice, Tuscany, Nice and Brittany, exploring the different taste notes that Changmin found himself learning in the kitchen but barely knew the history of, and ending the trip in London. It’s been a decade since then, but Changmin will never forget the experience of hearing show tunes and arias belted out live at the West End. 

He’s kept up with them in the meantime, because Hyunseok’s wife is a West End fanatic, and regularly demands Hyunseok bring him along too, whenever there are new shows opening at the Seoul Arts Centre. 

He runs into Yunho while they’re leaving, about to head back to the mansion. The gleam in the other man’s eyes is enough for Changmin to point at him and go, “you’ve got rap, right?”

Yunho smiles. “I don’t think I want to tell you.”

“Why?” Changmin feels a little insulted. He’s made hot chocolate for this man. He gave him his university hoodie! (Which he still hasn’t returned!)

Yes, his inner voice is waspish. It sounds remarkably like his mother. Why don’t you give him your class ring too, while you’re at it.

“Nope,” Yunho laughs. “You’re finally paying attention to the competition. It’ll be too dangerous to tell you.”

He smooths a hand down Changmin’s shoulder, to lessen the sting, and moves off. Changmin gapes after him.

 

--

 

“I’m performing Singing in the Rain,” Kyuhyun says. “The number where he tap dances and well, sings in the rain. I’m going to ask the producers if I can have fake rain coming down. I don’t think anyone’s crazy enough to attempt that. Maybe Yunho, but from what you told me, I’m pretty sure he’s got ‘rap’. I haven't the slightest what I'll do for my backup song. You?” 

They’re sprawled in an empty practice room, phones both opened to Melon and Spotify. 

“I’m torn,” Changmin admits. “I can’t decide between two choices. Well, three, actually, but the third one is so famous that I’m pretty sure someone else will sing it. So that’s out.”

“Which one is that?”

Music of the Night,” Changmin confesses, and throws a pencil at Kyuhyun when he does an exaggerated shudder of distaste. “I like it!”

“It’s overplayed,” Kyuhyun remarks, “good that you are dropping it. Although your head voice will sound beautiful in the bridge… Nah. Still don’t like it. Which are the two you actually are considering?”

“They’re both from the same show,” Changmin says, and tells him. Kyuhyun sits up, and flicks to his Spotify to play both songs. The numbers sound, sweeping and gorgeous in the space. “Which one do you like better?”

“That’s the thing, I love both of them,” Changmin shrugs, scuffing a toe against the polished wooden floorboards. “And it might be fun singing a song written for a female role. Fantine’s a mezzo-soprano, so it’s not like I’ll be spitting blood from her range.”

He sneaks a glance at Kyuhyun. “You can probably do Cosette, though.” 

Kyuhyun waves the praise away with a dismissive hand. His eyes are intent on Changmin’s. “I hear a very loud ‘but’.”

“But the other solo,” Changmin swipes at his phone and pulls up the Korean, then English lyrics. “It’s lower, of course. And not as tricksy as Fantine’s. But it’s quite apt for our situation, isn’t it? So maybe I'll use Fantine's as my backup instead.”

“Quite apt for our si-” Kyuhyun leans over and reads the lines, an involuntary bark of laughter escaping him. “Fuck, Shim, you’re morbid.”

“All right?” Changmin’s grinning. Kyuhyun shoves at him. His smile is affectionate. “All right.” 

 

--

 

His requests to the producers, in comparison to some of the contestants, is extremely sane and almost too understated. Jooyoung frowns at him, after Changmin’s managed to hunt him down. “Are you sure you’re not doing more?”

Jihwan’s got a hand on his camera but he’s set it up in a fixed angle, clearly more invested in eavesdropping blatantly.

"Yes,” Changmin insists, smiling when Jooyoung looks down at the piece of paper where Changmin’s sketched his ideas out. “No, see, that actually contributes to my song choice. It’s supposed to be… less. Shabby. Empty.” 

“If you say so,” Jooyoung says doubtfully, and dutifully repeats the phrase again when Jihwan asks him to, because he wanted to pull a close-up of Changmin’s face upon hearing that. “Some of the other kids have gone a bit mad. Well. Madder than usual. Your friend Kyuhyun actually, he’s got some harebrained thing about rain on set, and then on the other hand Yunho’s asking about fire-” 

“Yunho’s doing something with fire?” Changmin asks interestedly, but Jooyoung snaps his mouth shut. 

“No spoilers,” the assistant producer says, sniffing. “If Yunho wants to tell you what he’s doing ahead of time, we certainly won’t stop him. But you won’t hear any spoilers from us.”

“Fine, fine,” Changmin relents and tries again, just to be an asshole. “He’s got ‘rap’, right? I asked him, but he refuses to tell me.”

“There you have it, no spoilers,” Jooyoung says, and refuses to utter another word on the subject. Instead, he chases Changmin off to see the stylists.

 

--

 

You owe me,” Yoonju announces, victorious grin taking up more than half her face. 

“You look possessed,” Changmin informs her.

“Oh, yes, Eun-ah warned me that you’ve got your own opinions now,” Yoonju folds her arms across her chest, and raises both her eyebrows. “No matter. What matters is you owe me. You said I can have free rein when I next style you. It is now my next styling you.”

“I said you can-” Changmin stops and thinks. Recalls. “Shit. I did.”

“Language,” Yoonju purrs, indicating Jihwan with a careless shrug. Jihwan, however mouths the sound man will beep it at Changmin and then swings his camera to keep Yoonju in framing as she stalks slow circles around Changmin.

“I also said ‘within reason of the challenge’,” Changmin reminds her, forcing himself to stand firm when she pivots around with a displeased hiss. 

“So you did,” Yoonju mutters, slightly deflated. “Well? What’s your song about?”

Changmin tells her. Then he wishes he didn’t, because he doesn’t like the glint in her eyes at all.

“What?” he demands. “Yoonju, damn it, what are you thinking?”

“Language,” she repeats. She’s smiling. No, she’s grinning. It’s vaguely shark-like and leaves Changmin with a queasy sensation. “Come back in two days. I’ve got just the idea for you…”

 

--

 

Henry’s also drawn ‘rap’, he tells Changmin, and shows some crazy mix of dance and rap and something he calls dubstep. It has long low whirring sounds that just gives Changmin a headache, but Henry does look very cool doing it. 

Taeyeon tells him he’s overcompensating and Wendy laughs so hard she falls halfway into Changmin’s lap. Next to her, Tiffany is subdued and tense, a pale imitation of her usual self. 

Team BoA is the largest team so far, at this current state of things. BoA’s still got Taeyeon, Henry, Tiffany, Wendy and Changmin in the game, whereas Jongkook and Jaewon only have three contestants each remaining. 

Tiffany’s certain BoA will have one less by the time the week dies, though. “I’m going home,” she proclaims morosely. “I just- I can’t rap. Not like Chanyeol can.” 

Changmin reaches across Wendy and grips Tiffany’s hand. He knows what she’s feeling all too well. “It’s okay,” he tells her. “You are going to try your best, because we know you will. Nothing else matters.”

“I know that, but I still feel like,” she moans, darting a look at the cameras, “like shirt, if you get my meaning, yeah?”

"I know what can cheer you up," Wendy says, halfway in Changmin's lap and all the way in Tiffany's. "Make Changmin cook comfort food for you!"

Changmin shoves Wendy's knee away from how it's too uncomfortably close to his crotch, and looks up to be confronted by not one but two pairs of dewy damp eyes, wide and beseeching. "What? What?"

"Cook for ’Fany," Wendy implores, fat bottom lip quivering. "She's sad." 

"Eating your feelings is not a solution," Changmin advises. 

Tiffany sits up, indignant, "your entire professional career is built on people eating their feelings!" 

"Not true," Changmin says, snooty. "If people come to Choidot to eat their feelings away, it'll be a waste of their money and time. We prefer them to be in possession of their full feelings and faculties, thanks."

Tiffany looks at Wendy. Wendy looks at Tiffany. Then they both look at him. Their eyes are big and wet again. 

"Oh for fuc-fudge's sake," Changmin says, flustered, an eye on Jihwan. "What do you want to eat?"

“Los Angeles on a plate,” is Tiffany's immediate answer, and it’s clear that she’s been winding him up just to use such a response. He makes a disgusted noise, even as she and Wendy hoot and high-five each other.

Taeyeon throws her scorebook at them and snaps at them to focus. Henry takes that as an invitation to show off his dubstep moves and gangster rap again. 

Changmin just grins at them, something soft and happy curling up in his stomach in place of the pit that was originally reserved for anxiety.

 

--

 

There isn't enough time for him to cook for Tiffany that night, because she gets summoned by her stylist for an emergency fitting. 

Changmin think about it and wanders to Hyejin and Jaeni for help.

They're ecstatic, and Jaeni scribbles nonstop on her notepad whilst Changmin briefs them on the things he needs. 

 

--

 

Changmin's back with Yoonju at the broadcast station studio, for fittings. She’s summoned him earlier than usual this time, claiming that she wants to see him trying out her work-in-progress and doing a basic fit, before further editing, whatever that means. 

She hands things to him in layers, all of them severe and dark save for the broadcloth shirt and they're such a complete turnabout from her usual tastes that Changmin puts them on with barely any hesitation.

He's in the white shirt and black leather breeches and knee high boots when she makes him come out from the dressing room and onto a raised dais, arguing, "I need to see how they go on you, I need to see how the layers sit."

“I think these boots have too high a heel,” he says doubtfully, but comes out anyway because she’s threatening to stick him in the side with a pin if he dawdles. 

His eyebrows rise, and continue rising as she keeps handing him things. He’s buttoning the navy blue waistcoat, but she’s got something like a sash that’ll go around his waist, and there's something similar but smaller, a shorter and slimmer length of cloth, “a stock,” Yoonju says, “it goes around your neck. Like a cravat, but Marius was a lawyer, I looked it up on Naver, so no gentlemanly cravats for you. Why couldn’t you have chosen someone more romantic? Like a prince! No, just hold onto it, I’ll help you tie it after I’m done with your cummerbund.”

There’s a coat, an even darker shade of a midnight blue and with a bit of a pearlescent shimmer if you look at it sideways because Yoonju can’t help herself, tight and absolutely fitted about his shoulders and arms before slightly flaring out and cutting away at his upper thighs. And then another longer coat that goes over it, heavy and with many splits and layers across his back. This one is grey and reaches just below his knees.

“A greatcoat,” Yoonju names, the wide smile on her face teetering into the realm of deranged. She’s clutching on a pair of cufflinks that are silver and shiny and in the shape of books. “Stop squirming, I’ll straighten it for you.”

“It’s - I’m warm,” Changmin protests. She’s tied the stock in a way that it’s up against his throat, like a tie but not quite. He swallows and the movement is arrested, snug against the cloth. “Yoonju, I’ll die under the studio lights. I’m already starting to sweat. You put six layers on me! People didn’t have money for this much clothing during the French Revolution!”

“Only four, and don’t be a ninny,” Yoonju dismisses, yanking the line of his waistcoat straight. “Stand straight! I thought we cured you of that disgusting habit of slouching - you’ll spoil the lines!” 

“The only thing that will spoil is my brain when I develop a fever from overheating,” Changmin tells her, but is as usual summarily ignored.

Yoonju frowns at his waist, then squats down to run a hand from his knee up fast to very high up on the inside of his thigh. 

Changmin yelps, flinching. He gets a harsh smack to the inside of his thighs for his troubles.

“Are you wearing boxers?” Yoonju demands. Her hand is still uncomfortably close to his crotch, something that a lot of people are doing without his permission these days. And not because he’s having fun, too. “No boxers on recording day! Boxer briefs or briefs- wait, better be briefs, because we’re going to have these breeches be very tailored-”

It’s to this very interesting turn of the conversation that Yunho enters, and freezes. “Should I come back later?”

Changmin sees him in the mirror, and yelps again. Yunho’s eyes are fixed on Yoonju’s very pale hand curved firmly on the underside where Changmin’s left buttock meets his left leg. 

“Oh, Yunho,” Yoonju says breezily. She yanks at the seam, tugging another strangled noise from Changmin, because things chafe. “You’re early.”

“I can come back later,” Yunho volunteers. He doesn’t sound like he means it, though. His gaze is still lowered onto Changmin’s thighs, even though Yoonju has taken her hand away.

She’s looking at Yunho instead, and the soft expression on her is not what she wears whenever she looks at Changmin, for all she goes on and on about Changmin’s different body parts and how she loves to dress them.

“Your concept is ready,” she’s saying, and she’s pointing Yunho towards the dressing room, a long zipped up clothing dust bag in her arms. “Go put it on- I don’t think we’ll need much tweaking-”

Yunho goes, but he seems to be a little distracted today. Probably horrified by the groping. He hasn’t made eye contact with Changmin yet. 

Yoonju turns back to Changmin, a determined set to her lips. “You.”

Changmin can feels moisture gathering at his collar. It’s really too many layers and he feels like a dumpling tightly swaddled in constricting sheaves. “Yoonju, I don’t think this is period appropriate-”

“Look in the mirror,” she interrupts. 

Changmin does, really looks, and. Oh.

He doesn’t look like himself. He looks like… Oh.

Yoonju’s smug again. “Totally not breaking my streak. On recording day we’ll have Hyeyoung give you another trim around the ears and let those cheekbones convey starving French aristocrat fallen on hard times.”

 

--

 

Changmin lingers, curious because Yunho’s still tight-lipped about what he’s doing for the Battle, and promptly tries to not swallow his tongue when Yunho steps out of the dressing room. 

He vaguely registers Yoonju bustling around him, clucking and pleased. 

Their gazes meet. Changmin knows he’s gaping like a fool but now he understands why Yoonju was moaning earlier about him not picking a prince-like character- because then she’ll have a matched set. 

She’s dressed Yunho in a cream coloured faux-military jacket and pantaloons with crest embroidery creeping up the sides of his legs, emphasising their length. There are epaulettes and beading and an inordinate amount of gold thread involved. He looks like some starstruck teenage girl’s idea of a fairytale prince, like a Prince Charming out of a childhood story book.

Changmin says, proud that he sounds marginally collected, “does this mean you’re doing musicals instead? Since you’re dressed like an escapee from Disneyland.”

Yunho’s face morphs from unreadable to something more familiar, a mischievous grin tugging at his lips. With his hair messy and un-styled, face clean, he’s lethal. “I’ll never tell.”

 

--

 

Jaeni comes by to tell him the producers have found him pastrami and flaxseed buns and authentic American bacon, so Changmin gets to work that night.

 

--

 

“You shouldn’t have done it,” Tiffany weeps, one of her tears splotching onto the serving plate. 

Disconcerted, Changmin edges it away from her. He may be away from Hyunseok’s kitchen, but he’s still adhering to the health standards imposed by the Korea Food and Drug Safety Ministry. 

He’s pretty sure it’s a violation of some sort if he serves food tainted with human bodily fluids. Never mind that the person tainting it is the same person who’s going to eat it.

“You shouldn’t have done it,” Tiffany cries again, Californian drawl nasal and congested. Apparently her valley girl accent comes out in full when she’s distraught and Changmin can barely understand her when she’s speaking Korean like it’s English. “It kind of- it kind of feels like the Last Supper- like I’m gonna go to m’execution at like, dawn-”

“Wow,” Changmin says, pulling the plate further away back to himself. “Fine. Sure. I’m certain someone else will be willing to eat it.”

“I volunteer as tribute,” Henry says immediately, one hand in the air and the other hand creeping towards the plate. Changmin slaps his hand away - in the nick of time, because Tiffany snarls and swipes at Henry with the fork clutched in her hand. “Don’t you touch it.” 

She pulls the plate back from Changmin, curves both her arms protectively around it. She’s got mascara all over her face again, not dissimilar to how she looked the night of the Judges’ Choice challenge. “No, no, I don’t care if eating it means like, I’m gonna be crucified tomorrow. If I’m dying at least I’ll die after having every bite and you can’t stop me.”

“If he wanted to stop you, he wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of actually briefing the writers about all your nonsense American ingredients in the first place,” Taeyeon points out brusquely, but that only prompts a fresh wave of tears from Tiffany.

Changmin backs even further away, ears on fire. 

Jihwan looks ecstatic that he’s got three cameras to capture such primetime drama action. Tears! Dramatic confessions! Pretty food!

If they squint very hard Taeyeon can even masquerade as the archetypal evil mother-in-law.

Tiffany strokes a tender finger over the top half of the flaxseed bun, which is fluffy and dents slightly from her touch. Changmin rubs at his neck. It feels hot. “Tiffany, it’s fine if you don’t want to have it. It’s getting kind of cold anyway.”

“Nuh uh,” Tiffany refutes, mouth full of prime Texan-beef-and-pastrami patty and authentic smoked American bacon and Monterey Jack cheese. She swallows, and waves the mangled burger at them, the brown-pink of the patty and green pickles and white onions fully visible. “This is the best burger I’ve ever eaten this isn't LA on a plate it's my heart on a plate oh my god Changmin marry me and have little cheeseburger babies with me every night.” 

Changmin feels his ears cool and his embarrassment fade. 

Beside him, Wendy sniggers, “Fany, you’re not quite the right person to make that proposition.”

“Changmin doesn’t like American accents for one thing. Say it again in a neutral Seoul accent slipping very slightly into satoori on rare occasions and maybe,” Henry shares a telling glance with Wendy, and they both erupt into cackles. 

Changmin slaps both of them on the back of their heads. “Yes, laugh, why don’t you. I have three more freshly grilled patties here and I guess I’ll just go ask Kyuhyun if he wants to share.”

“I will fight Kyuhyun,” Henry proclaims and Wendy steals two patties from under him, then everyone is brawling with each other too hard for proper conversation. 

 

--

 

It's recording day, and backstage is even more of a controlled mess as usual, because underlying everyone's excitement:

  1. They'll somehow get two weeks off away from all the cameras after today
  2. Whoever's remaining will be part of the official top ten of Sing! Idol

Yoonju is flitting between him and Yunho, adjusting pleats and tucking in lines and tying things and she’s barking instructions at Hyeyoung about sweeping up their bangs and making sure they look bold, more of her crazy stylist chatter that Changmin still doesn’t get.

Yunho’s putting up with this treatment with his usual indomitable grace, but Changmin can feel his nose starting to sweat from the stifled heat trapped within his clothes. 

Changmin looks around and bites back a laugh. It’s mostly very clear who is performing which genre, because there are people in ball gowns and suits and fantastical costumes of a more historical bent, versus the other half of the eleven strong, who are in decidedly more modern wear. 

Well, except for Yunho. Changmin’s still not quite sure, but he’s leaning towards musicals. 

Kyuhyun’s in a classic pinstriped suit and bowler hat, complete with cane and tap dancing shoes. He’s currently using the cane to hook the back of Chanyeol’s jeans, which are extremely saggy and somehow is around the region of his lower thighs. He draws it back quickly and pretends to be practicing his dance routine, when Chanyeol turns with a shout. 

Tiffany is looking decidedly sharp in a fitted three piece grey suit whose only nod to her femininity is a more nipped in waist. Changmin goes over. Her feet are strapped in towering heels and disconcertingly, she’s eye-to-eye with Changmin and he doesn’t have to bend to give her a hug of encouragement.

She’s also trembling faintly. 

“You’ll try your best,” Changmin promises her.

“Don’t let me cry,” she returns. He squeezes her hand. 

 

--

 

Changmin’s second in line to perform, and he kicks it off in Korean, then English.

He completes his number to loud applause. It’s time for judges’ comments, and he stands up hastily from the seat he’s taken at his set, which consists only of nine empty chairs (aside from his) and two tables. 

Jongkook praises him, talking about “burgeoning sense of theatrical flair” and “thread of authentic desperation crying out at the audience”, which is a lot of fancy words that fly somewhat over Changmin’s head. But he takes it that the judges like what he’s done, and bows long and low. 

Some girl shouts very loudly from the seats that he looks like a bridegroom and she’ll be his bride, there doesn’t even need to be a proposal. She has her family register ready for him to sign. Changmin feels his ears flushing. 

There’s a smattering of laughter, and Jaewon puts up his mic to say it doesn’t bode well for a marriage if Changmin’s wearing such a severe dark colour palette on his wedding day. BoA just laughs and says the fangirls will have to wait for her permission first, because Changmin's from her team. Her statement prompts a fresh wave of cheers.

He lingers in stage left to watch the other performances. There’s only eleven of them, so it doesn’t take nearly as long as it did when they first started. 

Yunho comes out, very much in Disneyland escapee mode, but he opens his mouth and starts rapping and there are dance moves and head-banging and he’s winding and wending his way through complicated looking choreography, whilst spitting out words, machine gun-quick.

Changmin can feel himself gaping, and then there’s synchronised bursts of fire as Yunho shouts out about waiting for the rising sun.

Standing next to him, Zhou Mi leans over and gently nudges Changmin’s mouth closed. Changmin swallows and glances reflexively at the other man.

Zhou Mi’s mouth is relaxed and flat, but his eyes are glinting with laughter.

Changmin turns back hurriedly to the stage. 

 

--

 

In the end, Kyuhyun and Chanyeol go head-to-head. 

Kyuhyun’s first song is Singing in the Rain, and he couples his beautiful voice with a mind-boggling tap dance routine done in fake rain that’s released by newly rigged pipes high up in the studio. 

He doesn’t slip, not even faltering once. Changmin claps so hard that his palms hurt, while Kyuhyun holds his ending pose, cane aloft in the air and giant grin on his face. 

Chanyeol counters with a long rap anthem, where the only music is a tripping electronic tonal beat as words fall too fast and too smoothly from his lips, where he raps slickly how his popularity is probably higher than MNET’s, where he nearly swears on national television. He redacts the word himself, of course, a mischievous smirk on his face to the excitement of all the office ladies clutching at each other in the first row. 

They both get the highest scores so far, with a gap of only 4 points from each other, and run backstage to change into new outfits and get touch ups amidst a tittering audience. 

Youngjin calls for a tape change, and then they’re back to recording.

There’s a group of girls wearing a different school uniform from Changmin’s would-be bride and chanting Kyuhyun’s name. Two rows up in the audience, a huddle of girls and boys are waving large “CHANYEOL IS KING” cards and shrieking their heads off.

Wendy and Changmin have one of Tiffany’s hands each clutched in theirs. If there are no surprises, all of them know that Tiffany’s probably the one going home tonight. And unlike them, she won’t be back in a fortnight. 

Chanyeol performs his second song first. He’s got Irene doing a guest feature of sorts. 

They do a song together, and Chanyeol goes a step further and sings in addition to rapping. It’s a pretty song, and they sound beautiful together. But Chanyeol’s turn is over and the audience votes to give a slightly lower score than what he obtained for his first round. It makes the smile on his face a little fixed. It freezes completely when he’s back in the wings with them, and Kyuhyun steps out onstage.

Kyuhyun’s hair is short, but somehow now he’s got a messy little queue tied at his nape, and he’s dressed in snowy white and crimson red. The makeup stylists have given him a dramatic, gothic air- all pale colouring and bold black brows.

He’s got his mic clutched in one hand and the expression on his face is so unlike the usual joking, razor-witted Kyuhyun that all of them hold their breath. 

He walks forward, so much that he’s barely a feet away from the judges, and the stage lighting casts dramatic shadows on his face, and he opens his mouth. Mozart’s tormented aria about escaping his destiny pours out.

To absolutely no one’s surprise: Kyuhyun wins. 

 

--

 

They’re wrapping up filming, and it’s the unavoidable truth. Tiffany’s going home. 

She’s holding her tears better than she has in the past weeks, but her eyes are still reddening. Changmin steps up quickly behind her and murmurs into her ear, “imagine little cheeseburger babies rapping ‘can’t touch this’ and doing hip-thrusts out at Henry when he tries to eat them.”

It startles an unladylike snort out from her, but it does the trick (however inelegantly). She sniffs, and bows low to the audience. They cheer for her loudly.

Changmin’s sad, but at the same time happy. It’s got nothing to do with Sing! Idol, though. 

For two weeks, he’ll get to go home. He can’t wait. 

 

--

 

텅 빈 의자 텅 빈 탁자 나만 홀로 남았네

Oh my friends, my friends don't ask me 

What your sacrifice was for 

Empty chairs at empty tables 

Where my friend will sing no more.

-- EMPTY CHAIRS AT EMPTY TABLES.

 

Chapter Text

 

Yunho tries to spend the first day of his two weeks off sleeping in, and promptly fails. 

He’s out of bed by nine in the morning, spending the last two hours tossing and turning. 

There’s nothing for him to work on in Seoul. Both Hyukjae and Taemin are back at the dance academy, and between them and the freelance instructor they hired, the three of them have got Yunho’s classes sorted out perfectly. In lieu of Sing! Idol, he’s also found replacement choreographers for the dance groups that were under his wing, and there have been no complaints so far.

Hyukjae’s still convinced Yunho will win, but Yunho’s not so sure. Not now, at least.

There isn’t even an excuse of popping in to teach last-minute stragglers, but he heads down to the academy anyway, pulling on a set of old training clothes. Being stuck in a limbo between the two feels odd; his routine at the Sing! Idol mansion, and his usual routine when there are classes to teach and dances to choreograph.

Makes him feel lazy. Like he’s cheating at life.

Taemin’s busy with his intermediate jazz class, but Hyukjae’s just finished subbing for a class. It’s one of Yunho’s usuals, advanced modern ballet. 

He greets his regular students, and laughs when all of them profess to supporting him weekly by watching Sing! Idol religiously.

“Thanks, guys,” he gives a quick bow, and waves them off. He lingers as Hyukjae tidies the practice room and wipes down the barre, although they’ve got cleaners for doing that.

They hug. Hyukjae wraps a companionable arm around his shoulders. “How’s the gang?” He enquires. “I know you can’t talk about potential spoilers, but has anyone gone insane yet? Has Chanyeol flooded the mansion with his insatiable desire to win? You’re in the top ten!”

“They’re good. Still crazy, but the mansion’s starting to feel empty with just the few of us,” Yunho says. He opens his mouth again, and thinks better of it, and closes it.

He picks at the thread that’s unravelling from the left cuff of his long-sleeved training top. 

Hyukjae’s staring at him, keen gaze not covered up by his usual easygoing smile.

“And how’s everyone’s favourite socially awkward chef?” He wants to know. 

“Good,” Yunho utters. He tries for a smile. “Also more than a little terrifying now, because he sat up after Judges’ Choices and started paying serious attention to the competition.”

“My sacrifice wasn’t in vain then,” Hyukjae declares facetiously, but he’s still got a beady eye trained on Yunho and it feels a little like he’s an unsuspecting bug pinned under a microscope. “Is he still breaking out into those mad cooking binges?”

It feels odd thinking about Changmin like this, back in the real world. Like worrying at the soft tissue of your gum that holds a sore tooth. It doesn’t quite fit in yet it’s a part of you. And even after the tooth is removed, the phantom pain lingers. 

Unbidden, a smile creeps across Yunho’s face. “He made all of us gourmet steak and eggs last night, before we all went back to our rooms to pack. With the way Henry and Zhou Mi fought over it, you’d have thought the production team starved us for a month.”

“Mmm.” Hyukjae taps a finger hard at Yunho’s jaw. “Lovesick is not a look you wear so well.”

Yunho blows out a breath. “It’s that obvious, huh.”

“Only to me, doofus,” Hyukjae’s sympathetic but blunt. “Don’t worry. If it’s any consolation, I don’t think Changmin has any idea. I don’t think any one of them does, to be honest. It’s just my bad luck to know this face of yours,” he taps Yunho again, “for nearly twenty years. Gets a bit easy to read a man after that.”

“I know my father for more than thirty years but I still have no idea what he thinks most of the time,” Yunho says, and that’s a separate can of worms altogether.

Hyukjae doesn’t say anything about that, preferring to remain on the safer topic of Changmin. “But how is he- doing better? He was such an anxious little thing, in the beginning.”

“Little,” Yunho snorts, he's tall enough and yet Changmin’s got a very visible inch over him and woe betide all of them if the stylists decide to put him in anything but extremely flat shoes; which is all the time. 

He’s spent many a conversation talking to Changmin whilst trying not to sweat at that penetrating gaze, staring down at him from above. Changmin has a singular way of looking at a person, where his eyes are fixed on you and it feels like you’re the only person in his world, or at least the only one he cares about enough to let that detached gaze sharpen with interest. 

It’s both rather flattering and extremely nerve-wracking. 

“Earth to Yunho,” Hyukjae says, and he waves a careless hand that nearly blinds Yunho with jabbing fingers, had he not jerk back in reflexive response. “Are you drooling over Very Tall, A Little Dark, and Handsome yet Neurotic? You look like you are.”

“Don’t call him ‘neurotic’,” Yunho protests, but he steeples both hands together. 

He says suddenly, angry at Changmin on Changmin’s behalf, “can you believe he actually thinks himself ugly? ‘Scrawny and too tall and my mouth is too big and my eyes are two different sizes and my ears stick out’. That’s what he said to me when I told him he looks good in one of his show outfits.”

“You tell him he looks good every week,” Hyukjae scoffs. “You should see yourself. You have an ‘I should not drool over Changminnie’ expression. It’s standard procedure by now. The producers announce the next challenge, everyone plans, the stylists help come up with new concepts, Changmin tries his, you drool, everyone performs. I haven’t forgotten how you looked during the Rock Challenge. Like you wanted to eat him up and to hell with all the cameras, when Yoonju was tossing him around backstage.”

Yunho runs a hand through his hair. He hasn’t washed it yet and hair product from the recording session last night is still in, so calling it a mess is an understatement. “He’s skittish, though. And I’m not sure this is the best time to… try anything. At the end of the day, I’m still there for the competition. That’s first and foremost and should be my only priority, to be honest.”

And they’ve finally acknowledged the elephant in the room.

Hyukjae sighs, stretching his legs out. “You and your insatiable need to prove yourself. Are you going to see him?” He’s not talking about Changmin anymore, and Yunho’s very aware of that fact.

“I was thinking of driving down to see my mum,” Yunho says. He isn’t, until he is at this very moment. Hyukjae doesn’t need to know that. “I texted her last night. He’s at home this week. No big cases to preside over.”

He looks over at Hyukjae, mirthless. “So yes, I’ll probably see my dad while I am there.”

Hyukjae sighs again. It’s long, laden with accumulated patience. “He’s trying, Yunho.” 

Yunho lifts a shoulder in a careless shrug. He looks at the floor. It’s scuffed from countless feet dancing over it in pointe shoes, although they do still try to keep it as polished as possible.

Hyukjae warms to his topic. “He really is. You’re the first person to talk about how alike you and your dad are, in the fundamentals. Is it any wonder that he’s bad with words too?”

“He’s a district judge, Hyuk,” Yunho points out tiredly. “He was a prosecutor for twenty-five years and a judge for nine. He makes a living with words. If he’s bad with words, what does that make the rest of us?”

“Interrogating criminals,” Hyukjae dismisses. “Forcing the truth out. Dispensing justice. Not the kind of words that matter, between you and him. Look, he went from telling you to never darken his doorway ever again for even entertaining thoughts of a career in show business, to having your mum text you that he watched the first episode of Sing! Idol from beginning till end. If that isn’t progress, then I don’t know what is. It’s certainly more progress than whatever is going on between you and Changmin.”

“Hey,” Yunho says, mildly enough. “There’s nothing going between Changmin and I. Just like there’s nothing with my dad. It’s too late for that. He killed any part worthy of reconciliation himself, after my grandfather had to practically order him from his deathbed to speak to me. His only son.” 

“So stubborn,” Hyukjae shakes his head, reaching over and flicking a finger hard against his ear. Yunho grimaces, and tries a glare on Hyukjae. It doesn’t work.

“How long will you be down in Gwangju?” Hyukjae asks, clearly giving up on that avenue of questioning. Yunho gives another shrug and offers him a weak grin instead.

“Maybe a couple of days. Why?”

“Your favourite skittish deer in human form,” Hyukjae pats his pockets for his mobile. “He just texted me this morning. He hasn’t forgotten his promise to feed me strawberry things. Atta boy. I’m invited to a taste test thingy, only he didn’t call it a taste test, he used some weird French word, and I’m allowed to bring a plus one.”

Yunho feels his traitorous heart leap.

He had thought he won’t be seeing Changmin at all for two full weeks, except perhaps onscreen. He’d comforted himself with the thought that at least the Sing! Idol group chat is good for something, or he can always drop the other man a private KakaoTalk message, if he gets truly desperate.

Changmin’s university hoodie is still with him. Yunho never did manage to give it back before they all left for their break.

Hyukjae rolls his eyes and knocks his elbow against Yunho’s. “In case your stubborn thick head doesn’t get it, you’re totally my plus one.”

“Of course I’m your plus one,” Yunho says, smiling winningly. “You don’t have any other friends.” 

“Careful,” Hyukjae just grins back at him, teeth all on display. “I can always tell him I am going alone since I evidently don’t have friends.”

“You’re the bestest friend I’ve ever had and I love you,” Yunho adds another dash of sunshine to his smile and a twinkle to his eye. 

“Yeah, yeah,” Hyukjae says. “I’m also your Changmin’s favourite and he loves me forever and ever. You can suck on that. Shall I tell him we’ll be at Choidot’s for dinner in four days?” 

“Three,” Yunho isn’t asking at all. 

 

--

 

He drives his Jeep down south, to Gwangju that afternoon. 

Jeollado is gorgeous around him; vibrantly red with the scent of deep autumn in the air. There are neat piles of leaves of either side of the highway, likely the work of hardworking road sweepers. Along the way, Yunho espies more than one group of migratory birds soaring their way in formation across the blue sky. Maybe stragglers, given how late in the year it is. Like him.

It’s a Monday, so he makes good time with minimal traffic. Even with the shortening daylight hours, he arrives at his mother’s doorstep at three in the afternoon, when it’s still bright enough.

His mother knows he’s coming, because he texted again while pulling into a rest stop during the final leg of his drive.

She’s at the driveway, practically at the gate, when he pulls up. 

He’s barely out of the car before she flings herself at him, arms tight and clutching onto his jacket. He’s dressed up a little, which is what a man should do when he doesn’t see his mother every other day. She smells like the softener brand -the same one Changmin uses- and flowers.

He hugs her back tight. Everytime he sees her, she feels smaller, softer. More fragile.

“Hi, Mum,” he says. 

She presses her face to the front of his shirt for a long time, then lifts away. “You look tired.”

“Not tired now that I’ve seen you,” he says honestly, but she laughs, and smooths a hand over his lapels. “Charmer. Bad form doing that to your own mother. Come, Jihye’s here too. I told her her big brother is coming home.”

She curls an arm around his elbow and tugs him in, past the gardener who’s trimming at the bushes, tilting his sunhat up with a shout of welcome, and past the housekeeper who drops her stack of towels with a muted shriek of joy. She joins his mother in fluttering around him, and he’s pulled into a sitting room and Jihye is there.

They embrace for a long time. 

Yunho still can’t get used to the fact that little Jihye, who used to be slightly more than half his height, is now tall enough to comfortably tuck her head into the crook of his neck. He pats her on the back with slow strokes, mindful of how her knuckles are fisted in his shoulders.

Between her and their mother, his jacket is now hopelessly wrinkled.

He vaguely registers there’s someone else in the room with them, but it’s not his father, so Yunho ignores it and continues patting Jihye. 

After a while, she pulls away, sniffling. “Hi, big brother,” she says. “You look good on TV.”

Yunho grins sheepishly. “It’s the hard work of all the stylists.”

“All my friends say you dance like you are still nineteen,” Jihye threads her arms around his waist and tilts her head back slightly to regard him. “The older ones who actually still remember you, anyway. The newer ones think I’m lying and just claiming a link to someone famous.”

“I’ll break the spines of anyone who dares to call my sister a liar,” Yunho says, only half-joking. She just laughs, and dabs a little at the undersides of her eyes. She pats at his chest. “Come back and visit us more often and no one will say that. I can’t believe I missed you at Chuseok!”

“Filming began before that, so I drove down to see Mum earlier,” he explains, but then Jihye’s wriggling out from his embrace, and beckoning to someone, who turns out to be a visibly nervous-looking young man in the corner of the room. 

“I wanted to introduce you two at Chuseok,” she’s saying, and Yunho doesn’t quite understand. He doesn’t get it even when she threads her arm through the boy’s. She’s patting him, instead of Yunho. Then she’s looking, her gaze still direct, and going, “but that’s fine, since the two of you are meeting now. Big brother, I want you to meet Seokhee. Seokhee, this is my brother, Yunho. I wasn’t just being a crazy fan whenever I make you watch him on television every week and here’s the proof.”

Yunho looks at the young man. He looks at the hand the young man’s got stretched out. It’s trembling slightly, for all that he’s standing straight-backed and looking at Yunho in the eye. “I don’t understand.”

Jihye bites her lip. “Seokhee is my fiancé, big brother. I’m getting married.”

 

--

 

Yunho’s quiet throughout dinner. 

He shook Seokhee’s hand, of course. He’s not a savage. There was painfully polite small talk, until his mother takes pity on him and lets him go so he can roam around the extended neighbourhood, checking in on his friends from schoolboy days.

They’re delighted to see him, and Yunho spends a couple of hours reminiscing until his mother summons him back for a late dinner, because his father had a phone call with the attorney-general and they only just wrapped things up. 

He feels disconnected somehow, body going through the motions.

He runs into his father as he is coming in, at the foyer. They pause in their steps.

He bows, body folded into a perpendicular angle. “Father.”

“Ah.” His father says, inclining his head. “You’re here.” He gives a slow nod of his head back. 

They don’t speak.

The silence drags, and Yunho shifts slightly.

His father coughs, the sound gun-shot loud in the cavernous space. “You’ve been doing well.”

Yunho looks at him, surprised. 

“On television,” his father clarifies. “I- your mother has been watching. You are very talented.”

“Thank you,” Yunho says formally. His father looks slightly expectant, but he doesn’t say anything else.

When the silence spills into awkwardness, Yunho bows again and states, “I believe it’s dinner time.”

“Ah,” his father starts. “Yes, yes. Shall we?”

Which brings them to the current tableau, where his mother is glowing and chattering a mile a minute, ecstatic that all of her brood is at the table. Jihye is glowing too, only slightly dimmer as she laughs at Seokhee and piles food in his bowl with the ease of long familiarity, tempered by uncertain glances flicked at Yunho. Seokhee’s polite and extremely correct, using formal speech and thanking all of them, even Jihye, and eating as neatly as possible. His spine is straight and he doesn’t slouch in his chair. He knows how to use all the chopsticks and spoons and utensils the helpers have laid out. 

Yunho hates him with the heat of a thousand suns. 

He’s aware of his own father’s eyes on him. The older man doesn’t speak too, and whenever he shifts in his seat at the head of the table, Seokhee sits even straighter, whilst Yunho’s own mother laughs and teases him about being frightful, “darling, stop frightening the poor boy with your glares. And our Yunho’s here today too, so poor Seokhee must be feeling doubly nervous!”

He should. That’s Yunho’s baby sister. Yunho bites back all the retorts crowding his tongue, and reaches for the water glass.

“Wine?” His father’s voice is mild. Yunho looks over and he’s got the decanter lifted, a questioning eyebrow cocked. 

“I shouldn’t,” he demurs, “I’m driving back tonight.” He doesn’t know he made that decision until it’s out of his mouth. 

His mother pauses, laughter gone.

His father’s brow creases. “So soon? I thought you would stay at least two days.” 

He casts a glance at Yunho’s mother, who’s got her lips pursed and blinking rapidly, and continues. “Stay the night, at least. It’s not safe on the road this late.”

Yunho looks at his mother too. And he looks at Jihye. They’ve got identical tense, crestfallen expressions, and Yunho feels more than a little sorry for being an ogre. “Yes, all right. I’ll stay the night.”

 

--

 

The housekeeper’s done up his old boyhood bedroom for him.

Yunho doesn’t visit frequently, but his mother insists on keeping it as a dedicated guest room for him anyway. 

He’s smoothing a hand over the duvet, looking at all the trophies he earned in middle school, bright and shiny and polished.

There’s a knock on his door. He goes to pull it open, and it’s his father, holding a decanter of whisky and two tumblers. “Since you’re not driving tonight,” he states, “you can drink.”

In the lamplight, his father looks old. His back is still ramrod-straight and his voice is still as robust, but there’s a lot more silver at his temples and his face is creased and weathered, lines bisecting the folds of his cheeks. It’s a startling picture, even though Yunho last saw the man a mere four months ago. 

“Sure,” Yunho relents. “One drink. I’m not good with alcohol.”

 

--

 

They drink silently. Yunho’s almost done with his shot, and more than feeling the effects since dinner was hours ago.

“You are happy in Seoul,” his father says suddenly into the quiet. It’s not a question.

“It’s going well,” Yunho says cautiously, setting his tumbler down. His picks up the whisky bottle, pouring when his father indicates that he was open for another shot. He doesn’t refill for himself. 

They sink back into words unsaid, until his father goes, “you really love what you are doing.”

Yunho puts aside all pretence of socialisation and sits up straighter. “May I ask what you are driving at, sir?”

His father’s brow creases, and smoothes. He picks up his glass, and sets it down again without taking a drink. 

Yunho makes to stand and bow. “It has been a long day, so forgive me if I-”

“Sit down,” again, it’s not a question.

Yunho hesitates, and sits again slowly. He crosses one leg over another, a tiny rebellion, because his father had shouted memorably in Yunho’s teenage years that a true man sits with his back straight and his legs perpendicular to the ground. 

His father had shouted a lot of things in Yunho’s teenage years. 

When his father speaks, his voice is worn like ragged leather. “Sometimes I wonder… We are very alike, aren’t we?”

He looks at Yunho. Yunho does a half-bow in his seat. He doesn’t offer an answer. 

His father takes a deep breath, and another. “I have golf in the morning with the other Jeolla-si judges. Drive safe. Don’t speed. Call your mother when you reach your Seoul flat.”

“I never do,” Yunho says politely. “And I will.”

His father nods. Nods again. Then he’s the one to stand, picking up the two tumblers, his own still half-filled. He doesn’t take the bottle of whisky. “Bring the whisky back to Seoul. Your mother will watch you on television. She tunes in faithfully.”

“Mum is very supportive,” Yunho agrees. His father pauses, and nods. He leaves the room, footsteps in his cashmere slippers, staple since Yunho was a boy, nearly soundless.  

Yunho takes a deep breath and picks up the bottle of whisky. It’s an expensive brand, old and with roots likely hailing from Scottish distilleries. Highly plausible that this one bottle costs a few hundred thousand won and also probably it can’t be bought without an invitation from the owner. 

He picks it up and brings it over to the shelf containing the trophies from days long past. Tucking it behind the row of them, he heads back to the turned down bed, and sleeps.

 

--

 

His mother sheds tears over him and leaves his car boot heavily laden with newly washed clothes, two cooler bags worth of banchan, a new goose down duvet she’s ordered off the internet. Jihye just introduced her to the joys of online shopping months ago, and she informs Yunho that once he’s won Sing! Idol and back living in his flat, she’ll use his address for shipping so he can get the purchases directly.

“Mum, you don’t have to buy these things for me,” he starts, but she just talks over him and announces she’ll be up in Seoul over the weekend, to look in on his flat.

“I’ll be home,” he reassures, and then she smoothly changes it such that she’ll come visit him instead. Yunho gives up, and accepts that he’ll be eating her packed meals till she’s up in the weekend and cooking proper meals for him. 

She hugs him one last time, and then cocks her head at him.

“Darling, I think I must be getting old and senile,” waving away his automatic protests to the contrary, “but isn’t your alma mater Myongji University?”

“Yes,” Yunho says in confusion, because his mother has a memory like a steel trap, then blinks at the slowly blossoming grin on her face. She straightens a non-existent crease on his sleeve and says with an innocent tilt to her voice that makes the hairs on his arm stand, “so why do you have a Kyunghee University men’s hoodie with you?”

Yunho freezes momentarily, then forces himself to laugh. “Oh, you washed it?”

“I checked the label,” she goes on. “It was made in 2011. It’s not yours, is it, darling.”

“No,” Yunho says, breezily enough. “It belongs to a friend of mine. He loaned it to me.” 

“Hyukjae went to Paichai and Hojoon went to Songwon, and they graduated even before 2011, didn’t they?” She looks at him. “You have friends that I don’t know of? That are close enough to loan you clothing?”

“Just a boy at Sing! Idol,” he adds on hastily, smiling sunnily at her. “A fellow contestant. I was cold.”

“Hmm.” She grins at him, the original variant of his trademark grin wide on her face. “A rival?”

“Actually,” Yunho thinks about it, and answers in unexpected seriousness. “Yes, you are right.”

“Oh?” She’s steadily inching him away from his open car door, her face open and curious with a million questions, so he gives her another hug, and then makes her promise to take the KTX up to Seoul over the weekend, rather than do something harebrained like drive.

Then he jumps into his car and sets off, avoiding his own gaze in the rear view mirror.

 

--

 

He sets to cleaning his flat that evening, humming his favourite songs beneath his breath, even though Hyukjae texts him that the usual suspects in their dance circle are asking after him.

There’s a thin layer of dust over almost everything, including the side of the bed he didn’t sleep on before he left for Gwangju, so Yunho knows it’ll probably take him two to three days to pull the rest of the flat up to his mother’s cleaning standards by the time she comes up for the weekend. 

Yunho knows she’ll cluck at him and just deep-clean the entire place again. 

Somehow it doesn’t sit right with him though, that a fully-grown man of thirty-three would just leave something as simple as cleaning house to his mother. 

He’s halfway through mopping the floor when he decides to unpack the things she’s packed for him from Gwangju. She’s had all his clothes washed as well as laundered and pressed, and now because of the softener, Yunho feels like his clothes all smell of Changmin. 

He puts Masked Singer on, on his television. They have the best covers.

He hangs half of the freshly pressed clothing in his wardrobe and then is distracted by packing away the banchan she’s sent with him. They’re in cooler bags, so at least nothing smells bad as he removes them to slip into his fridge.

Come out for dinner, Hojoon texts. Everyone is here.

Yunho would have ignored it, but Hojoon sends a follow up, we’re at Haenamjib and there’s tteok galbi and kimchi jjigae and Jungin’s mother is the one cooking today, and Yunho’s weak for Auntie‘s cooking, so he looks at his semi-organised fridge, closes the door and heads out.

 

--

 

Yunho’s not nervous. He’s perfectly fine.

He smiles fixedly into the mirror by his front door, and pokes a little at his coat. He’s got a jumper beneath, and he paired it with a white shirt and a pair of slate grey trousers. Leather oxfords are on his feet. Hopefully he’s got the dress code right. Michelin-starred restaurants are a thing of his very distant past. Even when he was a young boy, his father preferred to eat with the family at home, more trusting of the menu his mother and their family cook would come up with; rather than new-fangled culinary inventions by yet another rock star chef.

He tweaks his fringe. It’s getting long. Maybe he should have gotten a haircut yesterday instead of cleaning his flat. Checks his phone, balks a little at the time. 

Hyukjae drops him a text then, through KakaoTalk. You’re picking me up right? Don’t be late. We’re eating during their break. 

“Right, right,” Yunho mutters, and walks out of his flat. He’s back in two seconds, because he forgot his car keys. 

He’s in the car and on the highway to Hyukjae’s place when he catches sight of himself in the wing mirror, and lets out a startled laugh at the expression on his own face. Taking a deep breath, he dials his smile back down to the level of ‘socially acceptable’ and feels fairly proud of himself by the time he pulls up at Hyukjae’s building.

His confidence is promptly shattered when Hyukjae slides into the passenger seat, takes one look at him and starts chuckling, even as his hands find the seatbelt.

“What?” Yunho says, eyes back on the road. “What what what what what?”

“I mean, you, well,” Hyukjae utters through his laughter, gesturing at the car interior. “You’re driving the Audi instead of the Jeep and I was going to tease you that you look like you’re going on a blind date, then I realise that the only thing wrong with that will be calling it ‘blind’.”

Yunho aims a smile Hyukjae’s way, frantic. “Come on, bro, the restaurant is Michelin-starred, right? There’s a dress code- formal wear, usually!”

In contrast, Hyukjae’s in a tee and jeans, feet capped in sockless loafers. His only concession seems to be a canvas jacket, and that seems to be more due to the crisp November air than anything else. 

Hyukjae laughs more. When he’s finally calmed down, he rests an elbow against the car door, and takes another look at Yunho, and sighs.

Yunho just smiles harder.

They’re turning into Cheongdam-dong, so Yunho takes advantage by asking Hyukjae to help him navigate the GPS, to prevent further teasing. 

The building is unassuming from the outside, just another steel-and-glass edifice amongst legion in prestigious Gangnam. They pull up and in. The valet booth is empty, but a young man dressed in a black chef’s uniform pokes his head out of an alcove by the building’s entrance and hurries over. 

“Party of two, Lee Hyukjae?” He asks, tentative, then comes forward more boldly with an arm outstretched. “Yup, I recognise you. You look nicer than on TV!”

Hyukjae preens at the unexpected compliment, and is clearly gearing up for a quip, but the young chef -Changmin’s colleague?- sees Yunho and does a classic double take, eyes widening and jaw dropping. “Oh! Wow! It’s Yunho! Oh my God! Hi. Hi! I’m a fan. Hi! I’m Manjae. You dance really really well. You sing really well too. You’re amazing. Wow. Changmin didn’t say anything- he didn’t tell us you’re coming today. Hi!” 

“I’m just riding on Hyukjae’s coattails, today,” Yunho accepts his hand and shakes, laughing as Manjae tries to wrench his arm off in unmitigated enthusiasm. Hyukjae’s clearly been forgotten, but he’s not offended, clapping a hand on Manjae’s back, who remembers himself after a while and tries for a more professional tone. “Um- I mean, please come this way?”

“Are we taking up your rest time, though? Coming over at this hour,” Yunho can’t help but ask, concerned, as the young chef (“I’m not a chef yet, I’m cold support,” he says, to Yunho and Hyukjae’s jovial confusion) guides them into the lift. He’s still gazing at Yunho with a faraway smile, so it takes two tries and Hyukjae being the one to ask the question for Manjae to actually register it. 

“Oh!” Manjae blinks, and waves the question away. “Don’t worry about it. We’re actually closed for the day. Hyunseok and Jinwoo and Changmin discussed it and they felt it might be better, so you guys don’t eat all rushed. We only opened for lunch today. I think Changmin thought Hyukjae might be bringing more people, but you told him two pax, right? He didn’t quite believe you!”

“He told me to only bring a plus one,” Hyukjae fake-complains, and Manjae laughs. “He tends to understate things, that’s him!”

The lift informs them they’re at the third floor, and Manjae shepherds them out, chattering the entire time. They linger in the lobby and Yunho enquires, curious, since Manjae is so forthcoming, “is Changmin your boss?”

Somehow that makes Manjae snort, and emit a snigger before going, “Changmin hates having to officially lead things. Even the kids in his part don’t dare to call him ‘boss’. I’m cold, so if I call him ‘boss’ even as a joke, he’ll probably punch me in the throat. The big boss is always amused by that,” which doesn’t quite make sense to Yunho, so he presses, “what do you mean?”

“Oh!” Manjae seems to think of something, and his hands flutter. “Sorry, this probably sounds all weird, I forgot you guys are not- We have parts in the kitchen,” he explains, “and Changmin’s in charge of the hot part, where the stove, or rather fire’s used for cuisine. I’m support in the cold part, where we do things without fire, for a simple explanation. We also have a grill part, as well as pastry. Our big boss is our executive chef and owner Choi Hyunseok. Him and our head chef Jinwoo is in charge of the kitchen. Our general manager Naejin is in charge of the front of the house. The servers and the wine team.” 

Yunho nods, and Hyukjae goes “ahhhhh” in comprehension.

Manjae tilts his head at their expressions. “Didn’t Changmin explain this to you guys?”

“Changmin barely talks,” is Hyukjae’s riposte, and Manjae snorts again, “yeah, well, that sounds like him.” 

He remembers himself, and guides them into the restaurant proper. It’s all sleek lines and minimalist decor, a lot of white with black accents and marble and snowy-white tablecloths. He herds them past all that, to a pale wooden panel running the length of the restaurant, which somehow splits open to reveal the entrance into a private room. 

A server accompanies him, offering still or sparkling water and yet another one approaches with little offerings on two curvy platters. Amuse-bouche, Yunho suddenly remembers, Changmin having explained the concept to them about a month ago.

Manjae has the servers attend to them, promising that he’ll let Changmin know they’re here. He shakes Yunho’s hand a last time, “can’t believe you’re here! Ah, Hyukjae too!” and then slips out, closing the door behind him neatly.

 

--

 

Hyukjae’s lips are trembling from holding in his laughter. “I think we just met a Jung Yunho fanboy,” he deadpans, and thanks the server helping him spread the cloth napkin open onto his lap. 

“Hush,” Yunho says, and would have said more, but the door opens again, and Changmin comes in.

He’s looking taller and even more handsome than Yunho remembers him, and dressed in a neat black chef’s outfit. It’s identical to Manjae’s yet the way it sits on him is completely different. He’s standing taller and straighter than Yunho’s seen him, with none of the anxiety and self-deprecation and awkwardness that suffuses him during the months Yunho’s known him in Sing! Idol. 

Yunho saw him four days ago, but already it feels like a lifetime.

He’s barely in before he’s sniping at Hyukjae, “you should be eating the amuse-bouche! It’s freshly made and you’re just letting it get cold,” and his gaze darts over, bird-like, and lands on Yunho. 

Yunho offers him a smile, and a little wave. “Hi, Changminnie.” 

Someone else enters after Changmin, but Yunho’s more concerned by how Changmin sees him and then just sort of… glitches. He’s frozen, his mouth half-open like he’s in the middle of saying something.

Hyukjae takes a portion of the amuse-bouche and shoves it into his mouth, lips trembling suspiciously.

“Hi,” Yunho tries again, ducking his head in an attempt to peer into Changmin’s eyes. Maybe Changmin’s not happy, because he only expected Hyukjae to come by himself. Or with a large party of people, like Manjae had said. “Changmin?”

Another man, older, comes out from behind him, but he’s dressed in white to Changmin’s black. “Don’t mind him,” he says offhandedly, slapping a casual hand against the back of Changmin’s head, who yelps and clutches at his hair, but at least he’s moving again. “We got him for sale years and years ago and now he’s acting up and prone to stalling. Hi. I’m Hyunseok.”

The last part is said while stretching a hand out at Hyukjae, who shakes it firmly and goes, “hi, I’m Hyukjae.”

“Ah!” Hyunseok -Changmin’s mentor, Yunho realises, the man he speaks of so fondly that it’s clear he’s more than just an employer- raises both eyebrows. “Strawberry man. My pastry chef almost went over our monthly budget for fruits because of you.”

“Yup, although I’m sorry to hear that,” Hyukjae laughs, then looks at Yunho. “Technically, we both are strawberry men. He loves strawberries too.”

Changmin’s faint “Yunho likes strawberries?” goes unheard, because Hyunseok’s eyebrows have risen higher and his hand is in front of Yunho, now. “Yes. Jung Yunho! I watch you on TV. You are very good. Top ten of Sing! Idol now, yes?”

“Thank you, and hello,” Yunho says, shaking his hand, grinning at him and at the sly look Hyunseok’s sent Changmin’s way. He likes the older man already. “Changminnie is very good, too. You must be very proud.”

“Ah, yes,” Hyunseok says loftily. “Our Changmin- I mean, Changminnie is a very hard worker.”

“Oh my God, Hyunseok, go away,” Changmin mutters, and the paper-thin veneer of civilisation breaks, as both Hyunseok and Hyukjae cackle very loudly. 

They chat for a while more, pleasantries said, and then Hyunseok tells Changmin, “I’ll leave you to the introductions. Are we doing the nine course?”

“I’ve briefed Jinwoo to do a twenty-part dégustation,” Changmin says, and Yunho supposes something in that must be very surprising, because Hyunseok’s head goes back a little, and he purses his lips.

Yunho notices that Changmin’s ears are turning red- a classic sign of his discomfort. He however, has no qualms with pointing at Hyukjae and going to Hyunseok, “this is a thank you feast for this man, who actually made sure I could dance on national television. Otherwise your restaurant would have been on the evening news for an entirely different reason. Nearly half of the twenty is the strawberry menu that Hyemi has crafted.”

He sends another glance Yunho’s way, “Hyukjae only brought Yunho, but since Yunho likes strawberries too, can you help me ask Hyemi to double the portions? We can start with the hors d'oeuvres, then the hot appetisers. I’ll be back soon because I need to make some tweaks to the savouries.” 

“Already on it,” Hyunseok replies, smirking for some reason. He nods to Hyukjae and Yunho, and leaves the room. 

Changmin’s staring at Yunho again.

Yunho prompts him, “your chef- Hyunseok- he said something about introductions?”

That seems to jolt Changmin out of whatever is on his mind, and he straightens. “Right! Introductions.”

He launches into a complicated spiel about fusion cuisine concepts peppered with lots of French terms, and how they at Choidot propagate something called ‘molecular gastronomy’, words smoothing out and demeanour professional. Most of it is lost on Yunho and Hyukjae, though. 

Yunho thinks molecular gastronomy sounds like something from a chemistry class, long ago in high school. 

Hyukjae just leans back and uses his phone to take discreet photos of Changmin, which Changmin absolutely doesn’t realise, still going on and on about multi-sensory cooking, and experimental flavour pairings. Yunho half-expects him to whip out a lab coat to put over his uniform and start making them eat out of beakers. 

Then he’s got people coming in with all sorts of beautiful dishes, dainty and storybook-like and it’s not quite food as Yunho knows it.

It isn’t even the pretty dishes Changmin whips up for their Sing! Idol team, whenever he buckles to their whinging, in the first half of the competition. It, well, the dishes don’t quite look edible. They’re more similar to the fragile little objets d’art that Yunho’s mother collects, on glittering display in her study. 

There’s a delicate bird nest with four robin-blue eggs; the twigs are miso, and somehow the eggs are actually little pouches filled with a cold savoury cream that burst open when they bite into it. Changmin calls it ‘gazpacho’. There’s a pasture field in miniature form that’s somehow a salad made out of autumn vegetables, dotted with beautiful edible flowers and something that looks like soil, but Changmin says is made out of panko (Yunho doesn’t know what panko is) and squid ink reduction. There’s a gorgeous little pond that’s filled with what looks like reeds and generally just looks like a real pond shrunk into a bowl but when they taste it, it’s watercress soup. There’s something that looks like a white smooth pebble blooming with a profusion of wildflowers, but is cheese that’s both sharp and sweet at the same time. 

Hyukjae goes mad, waving his phone all over them, snapping photos and taking videos. Changmin’s looking super pleased at their reactions, startling a little when Yunho looks at him and goes, “which one is your favourite, Changminnie?”

“Ah,” Changmin stutters, and suddenly Yunho can see the shade of the awkward man Yunho’s been introduced to these months, “they’re all my favourites.”

“I mean,” he rubs a hand at the back of his nape, “Hyukjae really pulled through for me that week, you know? And you guys have always been so nice and encouraging to me. This is me paying back just a fraction of it. And… I’m not going to spoil anything for the strawberry feast later, but these dishes and the savouries are done in a way it leads up to them, in a journey.”

“It’s like you’ve pulled scenes out from a book of fairytales,” Yunho marvels, and Changmin’s entire face flushes red. “Like little pieces of the European countryside and forests.”

“That’s- that’s precisely it-” he stammers, and makes a quick, aborted gesture.

Yunho abruptly realises how rude they’re being. Changmin’s made all these absolutely beautiful food for them, and here they are talking and gesticulating and letting the food go cold. He jabs Hyukjae in the side and says so.

“You go ahead, I need to get this shot of red red Changminnie framed by this bird nest,” Hyukjae says, phone still glued to his hands. He gets scowling Changmin with a receding flush instead, who treats Hyukjae with none of the distance he’s afforded Yunho. Yunho just rolls his eyes and tries the cheese pebble. 

It’s indescribable. 

“Changmin,” Yunho says, and Changmin stops scowling at Hyukjae long enough to focus on him, “Changminnie, this is amazing.” He takes a miniature egg, savouring the creamy salty-tart taste upon his tongue. “This is so delicious. This is. You have so much talent and it just shines through.” 

Changmin turns very red very fast, and lets out a noise like a cat whose tail was trodden on. “I- I’ll let you two eat, need to change savouries, will be back soon,” he manages and bows like he’s running on hyper-speed and is out of the room before Yunho can apologise for whatever it is that he’s said.

He’s always just so clumsy around Changmin. 

Hyukjae just starts laughing again, and pops an egg into his mouth too. “Oh wait, you’re right, this is delicious,” he hums. 

 

--

 

Changmin only comes back once during the savouries, only to direct the servers in and share a quick, “I’ve done a bit of tweaking but I hope you two will like it, I need to see to dessert,” then he’s gone again, flitting back out. 

They’ve got another cornucopia of beautiful cuisine, all bucolic settings carved out in platters. Strawberries are used in all of them, interestingly enough. Either they spot it as garnish; or they eat, and there’s a faint taste that makes them wonder “is that strawberry?” out loud at each other. Somehow the taste doesn’t overwhelm and pairs nicely to the individual courses, acting as a consistent red thread. 

It isn’t food quite like Yunho knows. It’s turned into an exploration, a journey of sorts that involves sight and smell and touch and taste. 

Yunho’s attention is especially arrested by something that looks like a miniature island complete with an erupting volcano dripping lava, which he tries and to his delight, “Hyuk, this is kimchi jjigae, I think? And-”

Darts for what is masquerading as a mountainous ridge, “This tastes like galbi? I love kimchi jjigae paired with galbi!” 

Somehow though, even though it’s Korean food elements, it tastes- different. Different, yet delicious, an integrated part of the story Changmin is telling with food, even with less exotic and home-grown ingredients. Familiarity amidst novelty. 

“I’m not so sure this taste test thing is actually done in my honour,” Hyukjae mumbles, but he’s got his mouth crammed full of food, so Yunho must have misheard.

 

--

 

Changmin comes back in properly when dessert is served, together with tiny cups of steaming black coffee, divine-smelling. 

“To cleanse the palette,” he explains, ushering in a girl that only comes up to his shoulder. She’s also dressed in black. “This is Hyemi, our pastry chef. What you eat next is all wrought by her hands.”

Yunho smiles at her, polite. And then he remembers. “Ah! You’re the Hyemi that threatened to break sugar spheres on Changmin’s face? Hello!”

“What?” Hyemi says, and turns around to drive a fist into Changmin’s chest. It makes an audible thud. “I can’t believe you told other people that, you dickhead- Um! I’m sorry! Hello!”

Hyukjae’s got his phone out again. “I filmed it,” he says with relish, to Changmin’s eye roll and Hyemi’s panicky, “oh, no, I’m sorry! So sorry! That was so rude!”

“We like it when girls beat Changmin up. Have you been doing that long? We have a stylist that throws him around too,” Hyukjae informs her, and Hyemi brightens up, calming. “Really?”

“Can we talk about the food?” Changmin interrupts crossly. “The two of you can bond over doing physical violence to my person later.”

Both of them ignore him. 

Hyemi’s badgering Hyukjae for more stories of Yoonju destroying Changmin. Yunho folds his hands on the table and beams at Changmin. “Yes, we can. Do you need to introduce the food? Or do you want to sit down and eat with us? You must be tired. That was a lot of things that you fed us. Is this how a normal day at work is like for you? Or are we more trouble?”

Changmin chokes, and coughs.

Yunho half-rises out of his seat in concern, but he sits back down when Changmin waves him back down and swallows twice very hard. “Am fine,” he utters, hoarse, then calmly enough, “sorry, my spit just went down the, er, wrong way.”

“Because you’re drooling too much,” Hyemi mutters, but Yunho and Changmin don’t hear her. Hyukjae does, and gives her an interested glance. 

His attention on Yunho, Changmin comes over, closer, and pulls up in Hyukjae’s empty chair.

Hyukjae doesn’t notice, anyway. He’s intent on recounting to Hyemi how Yoonju had basically browbeat and also physically beat Changmin into his Rock challenge outfit. 

Yunho really liked that outfit, too.

Changmin gestures at the desserts. They’re all on individual serving plates, and there is bread decorated with strawberries and strawberry tea cakes and little pink scones with pots of jam and pats of butter. There’s also tumblers and what looks like shot glasses filled with ice cream, various shades of pinks and reds, “sorbets,” Changmin says, not that Yunho knows what that is.

The centre-piece on a filigreed platter, however, is what that draws Yunho’s eye. It’s a stunning miniature house, colourful and glazed and intricate. It’s got a white chimney and a darker cherry roof and windows and a door. The house itself is made with pale pink slabs delicately stencilled with a brick-like pattern.

“Strawberry-chocolate flavoured marzipan,” Changmin offers, a rare full-blown grin on his face. 

The shape of the house itself looks familiar somehow, long and low, with a wing that stretches around another little panko bed of edible soil and colourful pops of flowers.

Yunho stretches out a finger, entranced. The little door can be opened. There’s a profusion of macarons inside, each barely bigger than his fingernail, and of the palest rose. They’re stacked together like, “beanbags and sofas,” Yunho realises.

There are even smaller bits, white and almost cloud-like, (“Meringue,” Changmin supplies.) placed on them. Like throw pillows.

Like the living room in the Sing! Idol mansion. 

Yunho thinks his mouth is open. He looks across at Changmin, who quickly shakes his head.

“Not me, I can’t bake,” he refutes, but he’s still smiling and he looks shyly pleased at Yunho’s amazement. 

“Yes,” Yunho says, playing a light finger over the wing that arches around the miniature garden. It’s filled with flowers when the real garden has already surrendered to autumn fading into winter. 

He looks up, and offers Changmin a smile. “But she made this from your stories, didn’t she? You told her what it’s like. So you made this too. Just with words.”

Changmin’s ears pinken. He gives Yunho another slow grin, painfully sweet and devastating. 

 

Chapter Text

 

“I mean, it’s a little strange, isn’t it? I actually took a sabbatical from work, to join this thing. Is my Korean okay? I’m forever worried that I am too rude, because in Mandarin there’s no such thing as formal speech structure and raising or lowering your speech structure anymore. My Korean sounds native? Thank you. I worked very hard at it before I made the decision to join preliminary auditions.”

-- ZHOU Mi (33), publicist.


“Why not? Was what I was thinking when Super Junior suggested I sign myself up for this. Have you heard them? They’re a good bunch of kids, even if I do say so myself. It was either this, or American Idol, and I think I trust our three judges a bit more than Simon Cowell.”

-- Henry LAU (30), music producer. 


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Battle Challenge winner: KYUHYUN

 

Two weeks feels too long and like a flash simultaneously. 

The ten of them are all back together again and there’s a lot of hugging and catching up from everyone, for all that everyone has been texting in the giant KakaoTalk group chat everyday. Changmin saw Hyukjae and Yunho, and talked to Kyuhyun near daily over text but still sometimes two weeks felt like two months, instead.

It was good to go home, to visit his team and work until Jinwoo and Hyunseok forced him to take the rest of the week off in the second week. 

It was good to go home properly and finally have dinner with his family. 

His mother spent half the dinner ripping his performances apart and the other half of it lecturing Sooyeon and Jiyeon that their big brother will be the winner of Sing! Idol, mark her words. 

While her mouth ran on, she also piled too much meat into his serving bowl, so much that Changmin had difficulty finishing. He doesn’t have a small appetite. 

At the sight of the leftovers, she interrupted her own postulating so she could harangue him about his “dieting complex, do you really think you are a celebrity now? Is that why you are not eating? Do you want to waste away? Do you want to trouble me so much that I have to go on that Hello! show, just to get their help to make you live your life like an upright man?” 

Jiyeon rolled her eyes. Sooyeon filmed their mother on the sly just so she could snip her expressions into stickers and spam Changmin in his private KaTalk with them, whilst pointing out how some of Changmin’s expressions in Sing! Idol are right out of their mother’s face. 

Changmin just smiled blandly at Sooyeon over the dining table whilst tapping out simultaneously on his phone, that’s because half my genes are hers, you idiot.

The producers interrupt their hugging long enough to let them know that if they wish to, everyone can have a room to themselves, since there are only ten of them now.

Changmin catches Kyuhyun’s eye. Kyuhyun mouths, I’ve got a case of white. Changmin shakes his head when Jooyoung asks him if he’ll like to pick his own room.

“Nah, I’m good rooming with Kyuhyun,” he says. 

Jooyoung’s eyebrow arches, but he shrugs, accepting their decision. Likewise, Henry and Zhou Mi choose to stay roomed together too (“I get lonely and Mi is used to my chattering,” Henry offers when Zhou Mi sighs theatrically but didn’t contest the claim). 

On the other hand, Yunho’s had a single room for his sole use ever since he won rock-paper-scissors amongst all the men when they first played for rooms on their first day, and Chanyeol’s used to having a room all to himself after Kyungsoo got sent home.  

“By the way,” Youngmin says, straight-faced despite the fact that five cameramen have their lenses focused on the full-bodied hugs Wendy and Irene are doing to each other. “The next challenge is duets. We’re feeling like nice people this week, so you’re allowed to pick your own partner. You need to prepare both a duet with your partner, and also a solo song. The pair with the lowest score as voted by the audience will have to go up against each other with their solo song. Thereafter, the half of the pair with the lowest score will be eliminated.”

There’s a moment of silence as everyone processes this, and then utter pandemonium erupts.

Ten people are all talking at once, and some have resorted to physically pulling people to them to claim their partners. Amber and Wendy are both talking very loudly over each other and at him. 

Changmin raises his voice. “Kyu.”

Kyuhyun looks up, ducking away from Zhou Mi’s grasp, and goes without missing a beat: “Fine, but I’m picking the song and I don’t feel like having Korean.” 

“It’s not like you’re ordering takeout,” Changmin says without heat. He knocks his shoulder against Kyuhyun’s when the latter finally is able to fight his way over. 

“Can we do same-gender duet pairings? Are there same-gendered duets?” Chanyeol wonders, and shrinks back a little, when both Youngjin and Changmin go monotonously in tandem, “ yes and why not?” and Kyuhyun eyes him with raised eyebrows.

“I’m not suggesting anything-" Chanyeol tries to explain, and gives up, opting to dive over and under Taeyeon’s outstretched arm that’s dangerously near Yunho. 

“Yunho is mine,” he tells Taeyeon’s rapidly darkening expression. “He’s my team member too, and it’s just the two of us men left on this team, so it makes all the sense in the world for me to pick him.”

Yunho just looks amused. There’s a lopsided grin on his face. He catches Changmin’s eye by accident, and Changmin looks away quickly. 

There’s something odd sitting in his chest whenever he looks at Yunho now. It’s just jarring to see the man back in the context of the competition, after he came and made an appearance in Changmin’s real life during their two weeks off.

Damn Hyukjae for not warning him. Changmin knows Hyukjae knows about his crush on Yunho. He laughs too much whenever he sees Changmin’s face, to not to. He just hopes Hyukjae won’t leak it to Yunho, for laughs, until… Well. 

Until whenever. Hopefully never, seeing how Changmin had fed him. 

“If Yunho works with me, he’ll actually get to sing beautiful epic ballads,” Taeyeon is countering, expression closed. She’s got her arms crossed across her chest, whilst Chanyeol’s edged himself right up next to Yunho. “You’re just going to make Yunho rap with you.” 

Yunho glances between the two of them. “Are you two fighting over me now?” 

He actually sounds thrilled (and more amused), the demented man. He looks over at his cameraman. “Myunghwan, you’re getting this right? I feel so loved.”

Chanyeol faces off against Taeyeon, drawing his shoulders up and staring down at her. She’s in flats today since they’re not recording, and her head only comes up to his chest. It’s a bit of an unfair fight. She’s glaring at him steely-eyed, and he’s all but cringing. “You’ll just make Yunho sing some weepy epic ballad. ” 

Yunho’s head swivels between them, like an umpire in an intense tennis match. 

Chanyeol just sniffs at Taeyeon and targets Yunho instead, since it’s easier. Yunho’s easier, relative when compared to Taeyeon. “Yunho, you liked U-KNOW, right? You performed his Rising Sun the last challenge, so you must like him.”

“Oh, he’s not bad,” Yunho goes, mild. 

The cameramen have scented blood in the water, and the majority of the lenses are trained on the potential vocal ménage à trois. It’s over before it’s barely begun, though. Chanyeol straightens to his full height, encouraged. “He’s got a new song out with this underground rapper, Giriboy. You wanna Hit Me Up?”

“Sure, because you get points for the pun,” Yunho says, still mild, although he sends an apologetic glance Taeyeon’s way. Who just sucks in a long breath, and turns abruptly to Henry, ignoring Chanyeol when he pumps a fist in the air in relieved victory. “You are partnering me and we are singing A Way Back Into Love.”

“O-okay,” Henry squeaks, morose. 

 

--

 

“There’s this amazing veteran singer in Mandopop and we’re going to cover one of her classics even this particular song is not a duet,” Kyuhyun announces when he’s uncorked a bottle of white that night. 

A promise is a promise, and Changmin just shrugs and goes, “yes, all right, sounds lovely.”

Kyuhyun peers at him. He’s seated at the desks, while Changmin’s folded himself cross-legged on his bed. “You don’t mind?”

“Didn’t you say you want to pick the song?” Changmin asks, pouring himself a glass and inhaling. It smells like peaches and apricots. “I just wanted to sing with you. You know how much I like your voice. You’ll need to help me practice the pronunciation though. Do you think Zhou Mi will help us if we ask him?”

Kyuhyun’s quiet, and then, slowly, “you say the sweetest things, Chef Shim.” 

Changmin blinks, and looks more closely at Kyuhyun. “What?”

“What?” Kyuhyun retorts, but his shoulders are up about his ears and he’s gulping his wine down like it’s water. 

Changmin finds himself grinning, against his own volition.

Kyuhyun takes apparent offence at Changmin’s face. “What!”

Nothing,” Changmin hides the curve of his grin against the side of the glass. Kyuhyun’s busying himself tidying the desk, which is still spotless since they have been away a fortnight and the production team clearly went and got a cleaning crew in to take care of things. 

“Yeah, nothing me too,” Kyuhyun says nonsensically. He’s looking anywhere but at Changmin, suddenly and inordinately busy. 

It’s actually quite hilarious how he’s fumbling for his phone, which is lying on the desk in front of him, but his gaze is forced upwards and somewhere on the ceiling. “I’ll just. I’m just. Let me just. It’s high but good for both our ranges. Play you the song and maybe later Zhou Mi yeah.” 

 

--

 

Changmin goes to find Taeyeon, to wave his newly bought guitar at her. 

When Jinwoo had barred him bodily from the kitchen in the second week off, he took advantage of that and dragged a still-laughing Hyunseok and Seonyeob to go buy a guitar, just so that none of Taeyeon’s lessons go to waste.

Her face is in its habitual blank expression, although there’s a slight crease to her left eyebrow. She must be quite surprised. She looks at the guitar, then at him. “A Taylor grand auditorium. Interesting.”

“Is it?” Changmin asks, suddenly worried and awkward. “My boss has a friend who dabbles, and he recommended this after he asked me a few questions to understand what I want to learn. Is it difficult to play?”

“For you?” Taeyeon gives him another long look. “If I say yes, you’ll take it as a challenge and learn it in three days, just to spite me.”

“I would never,” Changmin protests indignantly, and Taeyeon snorts. She doesn’t reach out a hand, having too much respect for the instrument to smudge one belonging to someone else. 

Her eyes wander avidly over it however, and she says faux-casually, “your restaurant is doing well, huh.”

“Not my restaurant,” Changmin says automatically, then: “Wait, what?”

Taeyeon eyes him again, and she actually unbends enough to smirk. “I know precisely how much you paid for this Taylor eight-fourteen-ce V-Class deluxe. It looks brand new. Rosewood and spruce and mother-of-pearl, right? Not-your-restaurant is doing really well. Are you sure you need that one hundred million won prize money?”

 

--




Changmin really likes the song Kyuhyun has picked for their Duet Challenge.

He finds himself humming the tune, even before he starts on memorizing the pronunciation. Kyuhyun’s sent him the lyrics in hanyu pinyin form, as well as a YouTube link to a live version the original singer’s done on her latest tour. He’s looping her non-stop, earbuds firmly plugged in, just so he’s gotten the melody and key firmly down pat before he even tackles the language. 

Her voice is a work of art, at times soaring and lushly epic, and other times husky and almost delicate. If Kyuhyun’s voice is a soufflé, he thinks, this Queen of Mandopop is an entire banquet by herself.

Changmin’s crooning the introduction under his breath, less concerned about the words and more about the emotion the piece evokes, when Yunho finds him. He literally turns from singing about shades of grey and blue to having his vision being filled with red, and a mouthful of wool.

“Oh,” he jerks, and the red is removed and he’s confronted with Yunho instead.

Yunho’s gotten his hair cut, in the last week after Changmin’s seen him. His hair went from longish and brushing the back of his collar, to severely buzzed at the nape. He’s left his fringe largely alone, just trimmed, and he’s fiddling with it right now. It’s un-styled as usual, and falling into his eyes.

He’s so handsome and warm and right there, a bolt of bright sunshine in winter, that Changmin’s breath catches in his throat, unbidden. Thank fuck Yunho doesn’t seem to notice. 

“Sorry!” Yunho’s saying, laughing. There’s a bit of a flush to his cheeks that’s likely due to the nip in the air, because Changmin’s out by the garden singing like a madman and it seems like Yunho’s gone a bit daft as well, to join him. 

It’s just mostly filled with dead trees right now since they’ve just rolled into December, but Changmin still finds it calming.

The bench is too cold to sit at now, though he’s got two bottom layers on, so he’s just hovering at the trees, canopy bare.

Changmin sees from the periphery of his vision that Jihwan and Myunghwan are huddled together at the backdoor entrance, cameras aimed at them. The mudroom by the backdoor has a very efficient heater. Weak bastards. 

There’s a crescendo of violins, music swelling at the widening of Yunho’s smile, and some girl wailing about her heart being touched but her lover’s just out of reach, and. Right. Changmin’s earbuds are still firmly plugged in.

He pulls one out, out from his right ear. 

Yunho’s saying something, but Changmin interrupts with a too loud “You cut your hair!” before he realizes how rude that sounds. 

Yunho laughs again, and scruffs at his fringe. At least he’s bundled up in a warm-looking woolly jumper and jeans today, and his feet are in sensible boots. “Ah, yes. It was getting too long, and my mum was nagging at me, so off I went.” He thrusts out the handful of red again at Changmin. “Before I forget! I’ve held onto it for too long, I’m so sorry.”

“Oh!” Changmin looks at it blankly, and does a double-take. It’s his university hoodie. It feels like eons ago, when he loaned it to Yunho. 

He accepts it, and gives it a cursory glance, but finds his attention arrested.

His hoodie, that manky old thing, Changmin knows he does take care of it. But now it’s freshly laundered and neatly pressed; there’s even crisp lines ironed onto the shoulders and the seam of the sleeves, and it smells -he holds it to his face- just like the softener he uses.

Changmin throws a glance at Yunho, who’s pinkening even more due to the cold. Thinks about the conversation they had, that night after bumping into each other in this self-same garden. “Your mum?” 

“You remembered,” Yunho gives a little chuckle, and a helpless little shrug that is oddly charming. “Yeah, she got to my clothes again. But I wanted to wash this before I return it to you, anyway. It didn’t seem good otherwise.” 

Changmin wishes someone would capture this moment and GIF it, this small quirk of Yunho’s lips, instead of nonsensical short clips of Changmin ripping mics off of stands and giving angry unfocused snarls when he’s blinded by stage lights. 

Speaking of GIFing. He darts a look at the cameramen and shifts a little so he’s got his back to them and half-hides Yunho in the process.

This conversation feels private.

Changmin still remembers Yunho’s lack of expression when he struggled to explain why his mother takes trains up to Seoul monthly to see him. He waves Yunho off in response, “you didn’t have to. This old thing literally has been around for a million years since my university days.”

“It’s still very well loved and well kept, and thank you for lending it to me. I used it well,” Yunho insists, nodding towards where Changmin’s folded it back up and tucked it by his side. They’re quiet, smiling at each other, and then: 

 

“I really like the food you made that day.”

“How’s your mum? I bet she’s super proud of you.” 

They both say at the same time, a rush of syllables.

 

They exchange glances and laugh. 

“She’s doing well.” 

“I’m glad you did. It was fun doing that for Hyukjae. And you.” 

 

There’s another mutual pause, and Changmin can’t control his laughter, lifting a hand to gesture at Yunho to continue instead. He doesn’t dare to say anything because knowing his luck, he’ll just open his mouth and they’ll talk over each other again. 

Yunho stifles his own chuckling and elaborates, “I went down to visit her and she insisted on coming up right after that anyway, so I actually saw her for a full week.”

“I will kill my mother before I put myself in close quarters with her for an entire week,” Changmin says, and immediately feels like the worst sort of smug squandering unfilial bastard because Yunho had already mentioned he doesn’t have many opportunities to see his mother often and this is just rubbing it into his face that Changmin’s got his family bothering him everyday oh dear oh dear fuck. 

But Yunho’s clearly not offended. He’s thrown his head back and howled in laughter at the overcast skies, as though Changmin’s told a brilliant joke.

The cameramen shift and Jihwan drifts slightly closer, still a creature bound by material comfort and the lure of the heater. 

Changmin hopes the cold is a persistent ache in Jihwan’s bones and he’ll fling himself back closer to the heat. 

“Do you and your mum talk like that all the time? It sounds super fun, but how do you know when she’s being serious and when she’s playing around?” Yunho wants to know. He’s very close, and Changmin just doesn’t want this moment to ever end. 

He finds himself digging his phone out from his back pocket, swiping absentmindedly silent the ballad that has been playing.

Normally Changmin’s an absolute stickler for personal privacy.

He doesn’t even let Hyunseok know his passcode, and his boss is privy to more than a few of Changmin’s embarrassing secrets. He finds himself opening his KakaoTalk in front of Yunho however, tapping until it’s open to his chat with his mother. 

There’s just something in Yunho that feels trustworthy. 

Maybe it’s how he’s treated Changmin so far, with nothing but earnestness and respect even when Changmin’s not very good at talking or singing or being funny on camera. 

Maybe it’s his unshakeable conviction that Changmin’s so much more than he actually is. 

Or maybe Changmin’s just really shallow and it’s just Yunho’s beautiful smile and beautiful eyes and beautiful everything.

Yunho drifts a finger over Changmin’s phone screen, right over Changmin’s mother’s latest reply about how Changmin needs to stop stripping on national television before her close friends start thinking she has a gigolo for a son and he will bring nothing but shame and dishonour upon their family. “Oh, she loves you so much.”

He sounds a little wistful. 

“Funny way of showing it,” Changmin mutters. But he’s got a grudging smile leaking into his voice and he knows Yunho can hear it. The other man looks up then, and because he’s got his head tilted towards Changmin’s phone, and Changmin’s leaning over it too. 

They’re very close.

Yunho blinks. 

He’s got long eyelashes, Changmin realizes, sweeping and straight. They frame his eyes, a sooty emphasis against their cat-like tilt. The lashes on his left eye are tangled in the ends of his fringe, and when he blinks again, his hair ruffles, very slightly. His irises are very dark. 

Yunho opens his mouth on a breath. The curve of his lower lip is voluptuous. It’s pink and slick with moisture, because Yunho’s just darted his tongue out to wet his own lips. There is a mole on the left of his upper lip. A beauty mark. His pupils are little pinpricks of the deepest black. 

Behind them, very close, Henry asks, very loud, “are you two playing Eye Contact for Six Seconds?”

Fuck,” Changmin says, jumping about a foot in the air. He finds his footing but Yunho jolts in shock, treading heavily onto Changmin’s toes and then staggering very slightly before regaining his balance.

“Either that, or you’re trying to look up each other’s nostrils,” Henry says. “Why are you trying to look up each other’s nostrils?”  

What the fuck is wrong with you Henry are you trying to fucking kill people this is fucking reality television not a fucking horror film you fucking need a bell to be put on you can you fucking please go the fuck away, ” Changmin states with feeling.

 

--

 

“So, clothes.” Kyuhyun starts.

Changmin just looks at him with dead eyes. “Please make sure we don’t get Yoonju. Please.”

“Can we actually pick our stylists?” Kyuhyun wonders. “Aren’t they the ones that draw lots to pick us?”

“I don’t care what you do.” Changmin enunciates. “I don’t care who you bribe. If you want me to sing, I will. If you want me to cook, I will. Just no Yoonju. She will go insane -even more insane- and she will dress us up in twin clothing and it will be very dramatic and very revealing with a lot of shiny fabrics and we will both look like Japanese porn stars out to make a quick buck on Korean national television. Please. No.”

Kyuhyun looks at their surroundings. No cameraman, although there’s the ever-present hallway cameras. He looks out the window. He looks at Changmin. “Porn stars?”

“My mother already called me a gigolo.” Changmin says. “We will not have Yoonju dressing us this challenge.”

“Your mother needs therapy,” Kyunhyun suggests. “Maybe with you in tow, too.”

“A psychiatrist would need therapy from my mother,” Changmin dismisses. “No Yoonju.”

 

--

 

Changmin doesn’t know how Kyuhyun pulls it off, but they get shuffled to be dressed by one of the calmer stylists, called Sanghee instead. 

And then he does, because Kyuhyun’s wiggling his eyebrows at him and pulling him into the kitchen, and he’s got all three executive producers seated at the counter together with Hyejin and Jaeni, the writers. There are eight cameras. 

“Did we bribe the senior production team, Counsellor,” Changmin says rather than asks. They all erupt into laughter, and Kyuhyun shrugs. “Yeah. But hey, at least Sanghee is just going to put us in sane, normal people jumpers and jeans. Just glammed up. Right, producers?” 

Youngmin’s got his chin propped up in a hand, but he’s smiling. “That depends if we get amazing footage today that’s going to bring us another first in the ratings.”

Kyuhyun waves a dismissive hand. “It’s Chef Shim and he’s cooking for the cameras. Of course it’ll get you good footage.”

“Hmm,” Youngmin says, but Soyoung’s got a hand on his arm and Jaeni interrupts with, “we got you different ingredients, Changmin! You can have a look and see what you want to do. We’ll interview you and Kyuhyun too, during it, so please remember to look at the notepads for the questions.”

“Oh, are these are the Top Ten interviews?” Changmin queries. He vaguely remembers Jooyoung briefing him that this will happen since they officially number ten contestants strong now.

Hyejin beams at him. “Yup! Zhou Mi, Irene and Taeyeon have already done theirs. Kyuhyun suggested to combine both of yours.” 

“And while I’m cooking?” Changmin looks to the writers to confirm. Then he looks over at Kyuhyun, laconic. 

Kyuhyun starts laughing. 

“Wow, Kyu.” Changmin deadpans. “So you get to laze around and possibly also issue orders while I slave away at the stove? So enterprising.”

Hyejin and Jaeni look like they’ve just struck lottery. Kyuhyun just cackles again. He’s made himself a cup of tea and he sits himself at the smaller table off the side, with his profile towards the cameras and at an angle where even the closer mid-shots will be able to capture him once Changmin starts bustling around the kitchen. 

They spent the whole night like that and somehow the writers wheedle Changmin into actually preparing proper food, for all they started with a million false starts and Changmin having to redo his meat prep, because he keeps forgetting to answer questions or look at the notepads. 

The executive producers make him make beef short ribs, the team having splurged, and Kyuhyun teases them for being corrupt and eating their own budget. 

Changmin is happy, because he (hopefully) comes off as semi-coherent in the segment. 

Although. He keeps trailing off mid-sentence, more concerned with what’s on the stove than talking, and Kyuhyun has to wade in to help the writers prompt him, or even guess at what he is trying to say. 

But at least he sounds like less of an idiot compared to the introductory interviews at the start of this crazy journey.

 

--

 

They’ve started the recording session, and it’s apparent every pair’s pretty decent except for Irene and Zhou Mi. Somehow there is zero chemistry between them, and their performance is made all the worse because Irene is singing in Korean and Zhou Mi in Mandarin. 

Even the judges look a bit puzzled by the performance of their duet, if it can be called that.  

“It’s kind of a train wreck,” Amber trails off, and Chanyeol starts guffawing, although he’s not quite mean about it. 

Him and Yunho are standing side-by-side, dressed in matching gangster rapper bondage wear. It’s clear at a glance that Yoonju’s the one dressing them this week. They have on oversized sunglasses and Chanyeol’s still looking marginally spiffy in comparison but, but.

Yunho’s outfit is completely ridiculous and there’s chains on the two of them everywhere. 

Changmin’s maybe going a little cross-eyed looking at the chain that’s looped through Yunho’s leather trousers that also somehow links to the one crossing his chest which is then in turn connected to the one that somehow goes behind his back and is attached to his right earring. 

Standing across them, dressed in matching cream coloured trousers paired with jumpers in different shades of blue layered over white shirts with Kyuhyun, Changmin feels nothing but relief. Although there’s something about the way the biker chains are draped tightly across Yunho’s skin that. Well. Hmm.

“Objectification is bad,” he says out loud, and then ducks his head when everyone turns around to give him a collective side-eye.

Even the cameramen are judging him. Changjoo, who was previously Hyukjae’s but now is assigned to cover them as part of the B camera unit, snorts. 

Not Yunho though. He just raises his eyebrows a little at Changmin in askance, but there’s a little smile flirting about his lips. Changmin feels his own mouth shaping into an answering simper.

Kyuhyun leans in, breath uncomfortably warm against Changmin’s ear. “And yet you are totally obvious in your objectifying. If you stare any harder, you’ll burn a hole through him and Chanyeol will probably strangle you with those chains because you destroyed his win.”

“Shut up,” Changmin mutters back with a bland smile plastered on his face for the cameras. “You’re really not funny, Counsellor.” 

“No?” Kyuhyun shifts even closer. Yunho isn’t smiling anymore. Changmin doesn’t quite understand his expression, but his eyes dart between Changmin and Kyuhyun a few times before he turns, facing the stage instead to watch the tragedy that is Irene and Zhou Mi. 

Changmin deflates a little, and elbows Kyuhyun in the gut because the latter is practically standing on top of him. “Counsellor, I’ll like to raise an objection regarding a lack of respect for personal space.”

“That’s totally not how we speak in the courtroom, Chef Shim, talk about contempt of court,” Kyuhyun curls his lip at Changmin, and takes Changmin’s answering eye roll as invitation to drape himself along Changmin’s side, chin hooked over his shoulder. 

The cameras are rolling and they’re all crowded stage right, so Changmin just hisses back, “Kyu, you’re really heavy and I’m already sweating beneath this jumper, so shove off already.”

“Your cameraman kind of looks like Christmas has come early. Mine too,” Kyuhyun points out, and Changmin looks over.

Jihwan’s got the lens trained on them, which is the norm. He’s also practically pasted onto the viewfinder of his mobile camera, which is not quite the norm. And Kyuhyun’s right; there is a terrifyingly large grin on his face, and a twin smile reflected on Kyuhyun’s cameraman. 

He turns his face away from the cameras so it looks as though he’s whispering to Kyuhyun, and narrows his eyes viciously. 

Kyuhyun gives a theatrical shiver and sidles back a step, but his mouth is twitching like he’s going to let loose a loud laugh any second and they’re in the wings and the producers will kill them if Kyuhyun disrupts the painfully awkward way Zhou Mi is holding Irene’s hand with two hesitant fingers and how Irene looks like a martyr tasked to lie back heroically and thinking of England

So Changmin claps a hand over Kyuhyun’s mouth and hauls him close just so he can act as a straitjacket for someone who’s clearly lost his wits. 

Kyuhyun struggles, mumbling stifled protests and snickering snorts against Changmin’s palm. Changmin curves his other arm around Kyuhyun’s chest and hangs on grimly. 

He catches Yunho’s eye again, but Yunho just blinks twice and leans over to murmur something to Chanyeol. His mouth is very close to Chanyeol’s ear. 

Changmin feels a pulse of something and digs an unforgiving elbow into Kyuhyun’s side, palm still clamped onto Kyuhyun’s face, until the other is tapping frantically at the back of Changmin’s arm, and everyone crammed in the wings is looking at them. 

Yunho cocks his head. “Changminnie, I think Kyuhyun can’t breathe.”

Changmin releases Kyuhyun. Who then takes an obnoxiously long and loud inhale of air, unrepentant even when Wendy whispers in horrified glee, “You’ve done it, Kyuhyun. Soyoung is looking over and hoooooly shit her face.” 

We are rolling on set, people, this is not a schoolyard playground,” Soyoung stomps over, hissing, and everyone shuts up even though she’s clearly louder than Kyuhyun had been and more than a few audience members look over. 



--

 

Kyuhyun and Changmin go last. 

Outfits and set-wise, they’re one of the more sedate pairs for this week. There are no props these week. It’s just the two of them. Changmin wants that to be enough. 

They stand far from each other, diffused stage light playing over the distance between them. 

Kyuhyun’s sufficiently recovered from whatever lunatic fit that had befallen him earlier, to look suitably pensive. The backing band is a mini-orchestra this time round, with three strings, drums, a piano and two flutes. They tune to concert pitch, the A note pulling loud and long. 

The stage lights dim, and the spotlights come on, a bright white halo each trained on them. The pianist begins, a slow tinkling waterfall of notes, and the violins come in. The cello offers a single mournful note in counterpoint.

Changmin starts it off first, low and melancholic. He closes his eyes and sings wondering, of guessing at the moods of the sea. Kyuhyun enters then, and it’s such a joy to listen to his low voice describing how he’s had to endure sleepless nights tormented by the thought of a lover out of reach. 

He pulls his tone up, arching high into the chorus, vibrato long and rich. Then Changmin allows himself join Kyuhyun, taking over the main melody line. 

He turns blindly. The lights are a blank daunting wash of white, and he still hasn’t mustered the superpower of seeing through them, but he’s memorized Kyuhyun’s position on stage. 

Changmin lets himself go, belting out the notes at the direction he knows Kyuhyun’s standing at. They sink into the second stanza and it’s Kyuhyun’s turn again. Like they’ve rehearsed, over and over and over, Changmin sings in harmony, in a minor key, taking the backseat as second vocal and going an octave up to emphasise the pretty little tilt in the melody. 

They swap, and swap again, their voices bobbing and weaving about each other, pushing against each other only to blend together. 

Changmin closes his eyes, losing himself in the refrain, in the music. In himself.

They win the challenge. 

 

--

 

聽 海哭的聲音 

這片海未免也太多情 悲泣到天明 

寫封信給我 就當最後約定 

說你在離開我的時候 是怎樣的心情

-- 聽海.

 

Chapter Text

 

“I just really love singing! Ballads, dance, electronica, rock… they’re all great in their own way. You’ll think I’m crazy or at least very confused, if you look at my playlists.”

-- Amber LIU (27), travel host.


“Singing has been a form of de-stressing and enjoyment all my life. I even took classes for it, but I never even thought about pursuing it as a career. It’s not like I don’t enjoy law. But singing is a part of me.” 

-- CHO Kyuhyun (31), lawyer, corporate law.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

DUET Challenge winner: CHANGMIN&KYUHYUN

 

Irene and Zhou Mi end up as the pair with the lowest combined score as voted by the audience, although there are no surprises on that -well- score. They come backstage to prepare for their solo pieces, looking impossibly awkward and avoiding each other's eyes.

"How do you even…" Henry starts, but Zhou Mi cuts him off with a blank "I don't want to talk about it." 

Irene’s got her head ducked low, walking to the dressing room with hers stylist trotting to keep up with her, Irene’s second outfit clutched in both hands. Henry looks at her, then at Zhou Mi trudging off in the opposite direction, and asks the room in general, “but how do you even…”

“Shut up, Henry,” Kyuhyun advises, and for once Henry follows instructions without spouting ten other questions, as is his wont. Everyone looks for corners to avert their eyes to. Changmin aims for one and accidentally meets Yunho’s gaze instead.

Yunho tilts his head slightly. What do you think happened to them.

Changmin raises the edge of his right shoulder. Maybe they fought? 

Yunho scratches his ear. But it’s Irene and Zhou Mi. They don’t fight. 

Offended, Changmin rubs a knuckle across his nose. But… Irene hits me.

Yunho raises both eyebrows. Yeah, but it’s you. 

Changmin blinks and take a half step back. What do you mean?!

Yunho rubs a hand at the back of his nape. No nothing bad don’t be offended sorry it’s just you are a softie for the girls and they absolutely know it. 

“Not that it isn’t entertaining watching the two of you do interpretive dance at each other,” Kyuhyun interrupts, and both of them look up to find six pairs of eyes focused on them in fixed concentration.

Well, five. Taeyeon’s rolling hers and directing them back to her fingernails. 

Yunho coughs. Changmin flushes a brilliant red. 

“But,” Kyuhyun continues, dodging the vicious kick Changmin aims at his shin, “I think Youngjin is waving us in.”

They file back into the wings, everyone a little puzzled and a lot sombre. Zhou Mi and Irene take their turns, and it’s obvious that Irene’s lost her concentration. Her “Love Battery”, originally by Hong Jin Young, is listless and lackluster. Jaewon puts it well, when he raises his mic to give a gentle but blunt, “your battery sounds like it just ran out of juice, Irene.” 

Zhou Mi sings a ballad in his native Mandarin. Changmin doesn’t understand the words, but the thread of very real desperation in his voice throughout the entire song - that he understands. This is watershed for Zhou Mi, just as Judges’ Choice was for Changmin. 

In the end, desperation and desire wins out. Zhou Mi gets to stay.

 

--

 

They’re still talking about it, a couple of days later. Ostensibly, everyone is hard at work preparing for the next challenge, its theme turning out to be Medleys.

Although calling it Mad-ley would be more appropriate, given how the nine of them take turns feverishly throwing combinations of two or more songs together, and at each other, only to rescind the song choices for other pieces over and over.

Everyone’s still rattled by the elimination last week. 

Changmin’s hunched over his guitar, visibly diligent with his practice, because he discovers that if he practices his scales in the privacy of his room, Taeyeon has a tendency to narrow her eyes at him and go, “did you spend all that money just for that poor instrument to languish in a dark corner?”

The first and second time she does it, it invites a cacophony of inquisitive questioning. The inevitable teasing and catcalls of “your restaurant” that follows makes Changmin clap his hands over his ears in defeat, and decide it is better to err on the side of caution. 

He still practices in his room, often in the evening after dinner, when Kyuhyun pours them chilled white to savour. But now he does it visibly in the mornings too. Either in one of the practice rooms, or more often than not the kitchen, because there’s natural light, and it’s the kitchen.

Changmin does it so much that Jihwan moans over just how much similar footage he has, of Changmin playing scales on the guitar, and how boring the viewers will find him. There's no surprises on that count, so Changmin just ignores him. 

He’s in the kitchen now, with his Taylor, and trying to figure and finger his way through F sharp minor.

Unfortunately (for him), he’s also seated at the side table. Chanyeol and Zhou Mi have decided it would be a good idea to bookend him whilst they carry an ongoing conversation over his bent head.

“-really don’t know,” Zhou Mi is saying, when Changmin finally pulls off a successful combination with minimal fumble as he segues between F sharp and G sharp. He tunes back in absentmindedly into the conversation, only to hear Zhou Mi utter, “she came to beg me to make sure she loses, before we started recording.”

Chanyeol’s face is a rictus of shock. “But- that’s against the rules? Have you told the producers? You’re jeopardising your own run, Mi!”

Zhou Mi waves him off. “Both of us spoke to the producers together and separately, after the recording. I think she explained some things to them in private, because they didn’t question me much.”

He sighs, and picks at an immaculately maintained fingernail. “Soyoung told me I am being a good friend. Well… I don’t know what that means.” 

Chanyeol still looks shell-shocked at the thought of deliberately engineering a loss. “Did she contact any one of you after?” He looks at Changmin to include him in the question as well. 

Changmin blinks. B, C sharp, D, E.

His fingers pause. “No,” he says honestly. 

They ignore him them, and Zhou Mi visibly gathers himself to ask them both what songs they are considering for their Medley piece. Changmin’s still ruminating, and tells them as such. 

Chanyeol turns even more animated, however, and offers to show Zhou Mi, but they will need to head to a practice room, because he “needs a damned lot of space, bro, you’re not gonna believe what I have in store.” 

Changmin’s left to his own devices again, something that actually pleases him. He bends over his Taylor once more, adjusting it so it sits better in the vee of his crossed legs. He goes through the entire F sharp minor scale again, and then pauses, taps his fingers. Maybe he can practice the Imagine score he played a month back, just so that he keeps it fresh. It is the first proper accompaniment he learned after all-

“Starving, starving, starv- oh, Changmin!” the startled exclamation, together with the simultaneous clatter of a saucepan, makes Changmin look up. Saucepans clatters differently from frying pans from pots- oh. 

“Yunho,” he says in response and in greeting, an involuntary smile tugging the edge of his lips.

Then they both look at the fallen saucepan, and Changmin knows his smile freezes, a little.

“Sorry!” Yunho bends to pick it up, an embarrassed laugh eking out from him. Changmin just offers him a small shrug but says warningly, “that one is a cheap knock-off that the production team found in one of the Mokdong hypermarts. But if that happened in my part of the kitchen…. Let’s just say that clumsy stages assigned to my part usually run away in three days or less.” 

That makes Yunho laugh again. “Yes, you’re extremely terrifying, Changminnie.” 

Changmin blinks, and opens his mouth. Closes it again. Yunho takes visible pity on him, and ventures, “that was meant as a compliment.”

“Oh,” Changmin relaxes. 

Yunho lifts the edge of his t-shirt to rub at the sides of the saucepan. Changmin bites back the inclination to tell him that that doesn’t help a wit if the pan has been dented by the fall, and busies himself looking around the corners of the kitchen instead. Anything to avoid the sight of smooth lithe curves that’s being afforded by the raised tee right now. 

“Myunghwan?” He asks. All six fixed cameras in the kitchen are recording. 

“I think it’s too early… He usually likes to eat his egg sandwich and have an Americano before he starts his shift with me.” Is Yunho’s response, hands and eyes still busy on the saucepan. “Jihwan?”

“Lazy. He always complains he has too much footage of me on the guitar now and I never play anything exciting anyway. Just scales. So….” Changmin drums his fingers in the guitar’s body, and smooths a hand over its edge. “He usually shows up closer to lunch. That’s when he tries to goad me into cooking again.”

“Ah,” Yunho’s voice is muffled, because he’s ducked into one of the cupboards built into the counter. “Go on! I’m listening to you! I’m just-”

He emerges with a small soup pot. Changmin gazes at him with increasing fascination. “What are you doing?” 

“The crew’s egg sandwiches smell really, really good today,” Yunho says, jerking the pot under the tap at the sink and turns the lever for a quick gush of water, then turns it off again. He shakes the pot hard, and dumps the water. It seems to be his version of rinsing the pot. 

Changmin can’t look away. It’s starting to feel a little like a train wreck. “So you’re…. Boiling eggs?”

“Boiling?” Yunho’s meandering towards the fridge, and he pulls it open to take one, two, three eggs. “Oh! No! I feel like an omelette. They are feeding us Korean breakfast today, did you see the spread? But I feel like eggs and ham. Although not green eggs and ham. Do you know Dr Seuss? Some of the kids in my junior ballet class like to chant that at me.”

“You feel like a-” Changmin looks at the soup pot. Looks at Yunho. Looks at the soup pot again. “That’s a soup pot.”

“Is it?” Yunho brings it up close to his face and frowns at it, as though the words “soup pot” would be written in fine print on the sides of the pot in question. “I like the curved sides. Wouldn’t it easier to shape an omelette with them?”

Whoa. 

This is like… Watching a newborn infant try to walk. And then hoping it won’t fall face-first.

Changmin stands, picking up a soft rag for a quick wipe down of his Taylor, to remove his prints and dirt. Slipping it back into its case, he leans it against a far wall and hurries back to the counters, which are already starting to look like a war zone. 

Yunho’s beating the eggs with a spoon (?), and he’s got half-diced ham sitting on a chopping board next to him. The knife lies on the board in mute greasy accusation. He’s used the bread knife to attempt the dicing, and of course it’s resulted in mangled-looking hammy bits. 

Changmin doesn’t know what to help with first. He looks at the chopping board, then the pot, and then over to Yunho, who’s using enough forearm strength to churn up a mini-tornado in the mixing bowl. 

He winces reflexively, when Yunho gets a little bit too enthusiastic in beating the eggs. A splash of yellow slops over the side of the bowl. At least he’s repurposed a large enough soup bowl for the mixing. 

Another slop of yellow, another wince. Changmin inhales, and opens his mouth. “You feel like having omelettes for breakfast? Why don’t I-”

“No.” Yunho points the spoon at him, undeterred by how a drip of yellow does an about-face boomerang and ends up decorating his own nose. “You’re not our live-in chef! This is not the Playboy mansion. You’re too nice, Changminnie. We should be able to feed ourselves, instead of you running after us all the time. We take advantage of you.” 

Him, nice? Changmin shakes his head. This isn’t a train wreck. It’s an airplane crash. He tries again. “It’s no trouble.” 

“No. You do too much for us. We can feed ourselves, sometimes. I can feed myself! It’s just an omelette.” Yunho swipes at the yolk on his nose, and only succeeds it smearing it across his cheek. 

Sunshine spills in from the window over the sink, wintry bright, and gilds his profile with glittering edges. His hair, normally black and still severely buzzed at the back, mussed from sleep, drapes down across his eyes in a warm spill of dark brown under the filtered rays. 

Changmin takes another breath, but Yunho raises a hand and goes, “no! It’s okay. It’ll be fine. I’ll make enough for us to share. I can feed you too.”

I can feed you too. 

Changmin falls in love.

It’s this precise moment he remembers, clear as day, even years later.

How Yunho looks, his face still sleep-creased, and hair an unstyled mess. His tee is overly big on his frame and says “Myongji Dance”. There’s a faint scar on his cheek that Changmin had never noticed before, but is visible thus in the light. How the flickers of yellow from the tortured egg mixture spin from the bowl, dancing through the rays. Yunho’s eyes, flinty sharp with concentration, not on dance, but on the other great love of Changmin’s life. 

There’s a bit of yellow on his eyelashes. How his eyebrows draw together and furrow, bold slashes even without the aid of eyebrow pencils.

Changmin falls in love. Just like that. The final nail in the coffin. 

There’s a split second of pure happiness arcing through him, golden like the December sunshine. 

Then it fades into grey despair, and resignation.

He has a bad habit of falling for unattainable people. His middle school classmate, who already had a boyfriend. A brilliant sous chef the year after military, in France, already married to a most beautiful wife. 

Now Yunho. 

Changmin grapples with it, chokes it back. 

At least he and Yunho are friends. He thinks he can claim that, at least, and Yunho seems to see him as more than tolerable, given how he does come of his own volition to have conversations with Changmin. They aren’t short conversations, either. No one would subject themselves to such torture, if they can’t stand the person. 

At least they are friends.

There’s an ache in Changmin’s chest, when he thinks about how they are at most three months from the end of this competition. He’s a little more confident about his chances here, and actively fighting to stay. 

But even then, Changmin doesn’t think he’ll reach the semi-finals. There’s Yunho himself, and Kyuhyun, and Taeyeon. The Big Three with the most consistently high set of scores. 

He hopes Yunho likes him enough as a friend that they will still keep in touch after Sing! Idol ends. 

Changmin doesn’t need much. Maybe a few KaTalks once a fortnight? Greeting exchanges during the big festive dates, like Chuseok and the New Year. Meet ups, with the bigger gang and what is that horrible smell what has Yunho done now did Yunho fling a pat of butter into the soup pot and just let it keep at high heat the pot is cast iron is the butter burning yes the butter is burning-

Changmin squawks, and barely has the presence of mind to grab the dishcloth and then grab the smoking pot by its ears.

He flings it into the sink and turns the tap on. 

There’s another impressive belch of brown smoke, cast iron cooling under running water with a sizzle. 

Yunho blinks at him. “But… what did I do wrong? Omelettes are fried in butter, right? Don’t you need to add butter before the egg goes in?”

Changmin feels his mouth flatten into a thin line despite himself.

He looks at the chopping board, where Yunho has abandoned the egg mixture after flinging in the butter, to mince determinedly at the ham again. He’s going too slow, and the bread knife is dragging through the cured meat to give a mashed mess. It’s less ham and more pâté.

He looks at the egg mixture, where splatters decorate both the interior and exterior of the bowl. 

Then he looks at the abused pot sitting forlornly in the sink, and pokes at his own feelings.

Fuck. Yes, he’s in love.

“Changmin?” The determination has fled Yunho’s face. Now there’s something fragile, almost uncertain about him. “Sorry. So sorry. Did I ruin the pot? Maybe I can just…”

Changmin bends, and rummages. He comes back up with the rectangular frying pan, and brandishes it at Yunho. “Does it count towards ‘not letting you feed yourself’ if I just shout instructions at you?”

There’s confusion written all over his face, but Yunho takes the frying pan, nonetheless. “Beg pardon?”

“You called me terrifying and said it’s a compliment,” Changmin elaborates, nudging him out of the way with a gentle hip check, just so he can get at the knife drawer. 

He pulls a chef’s knife out, and gives it a quick wash. “Then you called me too nice. Let me teach you how to make an omelette and you can decide which one I am.” 

 

--

 

They’re sitting next to each other at the island counter, chairs close together to each other, and wolfing down the giant omelette in ravenous silence. Since there’s two of them, and they’re both hungry, Changmin made Yunho crack six eggs earlier, and taught him how to whisk gently.

Yunho must be halfway-full now. He’s pausing from wolfing the eggs down so quickly that it’s a wonder his mouth can fit everything. Now he’s admiring a scrap of egg-and-ham-and-mushroom dripping off of his fork. 

“I’ve never had an omelette like this before,” he says, wondering. 

Before he can stop himself, Changmin darts a look at Yunho from the side, silent judgement through his eyelashes. Yunho catches his disbelief and lets loose a peal of laughter. The omelette nearly falls out from his mouth, and Changmin puts a hovering hand beneath that laughing mouth, before he even thinks about it. 

Yunho bats Changmin’s hand away, laughing harder. “Changminnie, really! I know you think I’m useless in the kitchen, but I know enough to keep food in my mouth!” 

Changmin grumbles, and turns back to his share of the omelette. There’s a creeping warmth in his ears. 

Yunho hums, and says out of the blue, “you’re still too nice.”

“Wuh?” Now Changmin’s the one with his mouth full, and can only make a vaguely inquisitive noise and hope Yunho understands. 

Somehow he does. Twirling his fork, Yunho continues. “You’re still too nice. You didn’t scold me at all, even though your face kind of look like I was hurting you with what I did to the ham.”

Changmin closes his eyes in reflexive regret for that portion of ham, too mutilated to be of any use. “I raised my voice at you.”

“To give firm instructions!” Yunho tosses another bit of omelette into his mouth. “Which I appreciate. You were very clear, even down to the timings of what should go where. Mmm, I never knew that omelette with ham and mushroom filling would have onions, too.”

“You need to sauté the mushrooms with onions first. It brings out the full flavour,” Changmin says, and he’s horrified to hear the lecturing tone creeping back into his voice.

Yunho doesn’t seem to mind. If anything, he smiles bigger at Changmin. The full force of that dazzling grin aimed just at him is enough to make Changmin faintly queasy, especially in light of his own internal epiphany. 

 

--

 

Jihwan nags him about it, after. 

Changmin’s decided on the three songs he’ll tweak into a medley. The production team has been notified, and he’s seated with Eun-ah to plan his stage outfit for the week. Jihwan’s supposed to fade into the wallpaper as usual, and capture the high points of Changmin trying to convince Eun-ah to go minimalist again, but instead his cameraman is blathering on.

“You really should have texted me,” Jihwan bitches, camera off. They’re huddled in one of the many rooms in the backstage warrens of the broadcast station. There are no fixed cameras. Eun-ah’s gaze is darting between the two of them, amused. 

“I didn’t think it important,” Changmin shrugs. He tries a look on Eun-ah, a limpid stare that Wendy’s taught him recently. On her, it’s capable of making him agree to reheat instant tteok-bokki for her. 

Eun-ah just looks unfazed. 

Jihwan makes a noise of pure exasperation. “Not important? The dark horse is teaching the hot favourite how to cook! Do you know how much both your sets of fans will cry over that? Do you know how much grandmothers all over the nation will coo over that? The many ways we could have played with that footage! We could have snipped different versions for free-to-air and digital and SNS! Instead now the editors only have footage from the fixed cameras in the corners! We can’t zoom in on those! Those are meant for wide environment set-up shots!”

Eun-ah props her chin up with a hand. “Should a dark horse still go for a minimalist concept?”

Jihwan is behaving so unlike his usual mild-mannered self that Changmin’s slightly taken aback, although he still doesn’t quite understand how it’s a big deal. “Oh, but… the editors have footage of the entire conversation between Yunho and I in the kitchen, right? Since our editors are so good, maybe they can just summarise? It’s better to not show Yunho cooking. Those grandmothers might cry.”

Jihwan looks at him like he’s got three heads. “Summarise? Summarise? Summarise!”

He wanders off, clutching his camera and muttering to himself. Changmin hears snatches of his name mentioned, and Soyoung’s, and Hyejin’s. 

They’ve kind of hammered into him that he needs to stick together with his cameraman as much as possible, so Changmin actually half-rises to get up to go with him. 

Then he remembers Eun-ah. Who’s patiently waiting for him, her smile managing to be both placid and amused. 

“Right, right, outfits.” Changmin sits down again. “So…”

 

--

 

There’s another explosion of netizen commentary and fandom(s) warring over the Duet episode, which airs the night before the Medley recording session. There’s so few of them now, so naturally they gather in the living room to watch it together. 

It’s also Christmas, and the mansion rings with them shouting their well-wishes at each other in the hallways and down across the stairs.

The production team has hung up sprigs of mistletoe as a joke, but Taeyeon takes one look at the little hints of greenery decorating almost every corner and doorway, and stomps to an unlucky assistant producer, snarling, “I signed up for a vocal talent fight to the death, not a dating show.” 

The mistletoe vanish shortly after that. 

Changmin’s got his guitar practically glued to his thighs, and Taeyeon hers. They’re both bent over, feverishly practicing, until Henry smacks both of them hard enough that they look up.

Taeyeon’s scowling. Her fingers haven’t stopped plucking out a melody. Changmin just needs to practice those particular eight bars again, it’s towards the end and he keeps mixing the fingering up for what goes in front-

“Can you two stop? Guys! The episode is starting!” Henry hisses. He stretches out a hand to cover the strings on Changmin's guitar, then Taeyeon's, but Taeyeon just snarls at him and then hefts her guitar to walk out on them instead.

“Happy Christmas, Taeyeon,” Yunho calls after her, sunny smile tempered by a slight frown of concern. 

Changmin too, escapes to practice for half an hour more, before he wanders back into the living room. There’s only eight of them. He’s knocked on Taeyeon’s door and got a loud growl in return, audible even through the wood, so Changmin leaves her alone.

 

--

 

Even as the day spills over to recording day, and they make their way to the broadcast station in the large minivans, Changmin’s still practising. 

He’s second and third guessing himself, because the three songs he’s chosen belong to the same singer. He’d thought that would mean it would be easier to rearrange them, given how they’re all written for the same man. But somehow his arrangement still sounds odd to him.

Everyone’s reassured him that it’s just him being an idiot. “You do have a tendency to obsess,” Wendy offers. “It really sounds good, Changmin. I’m not kidding. Just leave it alone!” 

So they’re on the way, and he’s trying to quieten the doubts in his head by practicing, and practicing more. There’s no Kyuhyun this time round, both for the challenge and for the ride, because Kyuhyun’s in the other van with his team mates. So Changmin practices. And practices.

He keeps at it until Henry lets out a howl and physically pulls his hands away. “Enough! Your accompaniment is going to ring in my head for weeks!”

They’re near the broadcast station anyway, so Changmin sighs and sits on his hands. 

Unexpectedly, Taeyeon speaks up for him. Unlike him, her feverish practicing ended last night. She’s the epitome of unruffled calm now. “Shut up, Henry. You’re just jealous because you can’t pull your synthesiser out and go at it like us.” 

“Maybe I just have faith in myself, for coming so far,” Henry snipes back, snootily. 

Taeyeon’s got both eyebrows raised, but thank fuck they’re turning into the station’s carpark. Changmin hops off before he can get caught in the ensuing crossfire. 

 

--

 

This time round he’s dressed in another pair of blue jeans, but these don’t actually belong to him. Eun-ah has also sourced for him a denim shirt, faded and artfully distressed and worn loose and unbuttoned over a white tee beneath.

Amber whistles, when he walks past her with the jeans and tee on, carrying his guitar in its case. “Hate to see you go, but…”

Changmin rolls his eyes at her, and she cackles. 

He fights the urge to tug at the jeans. He thinks- he knows that the stylist has put him in at least two sizes too small. Changmin’s extremely clear on what’s what with regard to his own physical flaws, and part of that includes skinny legs that don’t quite seem to fill out, no matter how many hours he spends at the treadmill. 

That means when he wears jeans, properly fitting jeans, they tend to be comfortable around his waist, but a looser fit around the parts that Yoonju and now Eun-ah have been strangely and embarrassingly fixated on for months. 

Right now the pair he’s wearing feels like it’s been painted onto his bum. 

Changmin can’t even bend over properly. He’s tried. The denim pulls too tightly over the tops of his thighs and his entire hip region for him to even sit down fast. He was worried about pulling stitches, and tells Eun-ah as much. 

She doesn’t lose her temper at him like Yoonju would have done. But it’s a near thing. Her eyes go squinty, then her mild smile is back, albeit strained at the corners. “Of course I reinforced it for you, when I took out the waist. And it’s denim, silly boy. It doesn’t rip that easily. Not true denim. I won’t put you into one of those cheap thin denim lookalike fabrics!”

“Ah! So you did get a smaller size,” he says, triumphant, but she just stares at him in confusion. “Of course I have to make sure it’s fitted for you. We don’t want any saggy bottoms on national TV!” 

Changmin just sighs and gestures for the hovering Jooyoung to herd him away to wherever. 

Jihwan chuckles, holding his camera steady at Changmin’s retreating back and zooming slightly downwards, for the television viewers’ pleasure. 

Then he pans towards Eun-ah’s mild expression, which stays in place for two seconds before she shows two fingers in a victory sign, and gives the lens a sly grin.

 

— 

 

He’s at stage right, wiping down his Taylor one last time, anxious about prints showing up on the glossy finish under the harsh lights. 

There’s a snort at his side, then Taeyeon comes and takes the polishing rag away from him.

She folds it and puts it back in his case, then clicks that shut. 

Changmin stares at her helplessly. 

Logically, he knows he shouldn’t have an attack of nerves. He’s gotten through challenges where he knows he’s given lousier performances, especially in the beginning. He’s practiced almost every waking hour, or unless his Taylor is taken away from him by Kyuhyun. He got through Unplugged week with what was, in hindsight, blind determination and focus and also Taeyeon’s help. He shouldn’t be nervous. He’s practiced.

He’s nervous. 

Everything just feels a little off all week, especially after that morning in the kitchen, with Yunho. He wants to stay as long as possible. He wants a little more time. He wants, he wants.

Oh, how he wants.

“Don’t,” Taeyeon says. She’s staring at him, expression steely. “If anyone’s got a right to perform well, it’s us. We’ve worked hard and it’ll show.”

It’s so self-assured, so arrogant and so her that Changmin laughs, startled and one hand coming up to run through his hair out of habit. 

He goes halfway and lowers it again. He’s got mousse and spray and whatnot that the stylists have unloaded in his hair, and it’s once again shorter because they trimmed the bits around his ears and even gave a sneaky buzz at his nape. “You’ve played the guitar for years, Taeyeon.”

“Don’t make me give you compliments. I’m allergic,” she informs him.

He laughs properly this time, hilarity breaking the tension. She blinks slowly, but at least she’s not frowning at him anymore. He’ll take that. “Hold your guitar properly before you break it.”

He does, adjusting the stranglehold he’s got around his Taylor. 

On stage, Chanyeol is rapping again, to the cheers of schoolgirls. He’s wrapping up. Changmin’s up next.

Taeyeon lifts an eyebrow at him. “I won’t wish you luck. You won’t need it.” 

Changmin tries to smile at her. It comes out crumpled at the corners, and steadies. “Yes ma’am.”

 

 

He goes onstage, guitar clutched in one hand. He’s the second contestant. Yunho’s after him. 

They’ve already set up for him. It’s similar to what he had for Unplugged week, two tilting stands with mics already slotted into them. One for him and one for his Taylor. A backless bar stool sits in between them. The only difference is that some distance away, they’ve placed another mic stand at his request. This would be for the second and third portions of his medley.

He sits, slow. The denim stretches over his thighs, and the slight discomfort forces him to stay grounded in the moment. 

Hyunmoo is announcing him. The stage lights dim for the spotlights to come on. There’s a strong cheer, and applause coupled with catcalls. 

Seated, he bows as much as he can, his Taylor cradled to his chest. 

They hush, and it’s quiet. He takes a deep breath, and another. Checks the tuning pegs, gives a strum of middle C. She sounds bright. He’s ready.

He inhales, and bends his head to start.

 

 

His score is astoundingly high. 

After, Changmin stays in stage left, because he wants to watch Yunho’s performance, which is conceptually as far from his piece as much as possible. 

Changmin did acoustic the first part and power ballads for the second and third arc. They are all three songs sung by the same one original singer, to stitch together a story of a bittersweet love that was beautiful in its simplicity but ended in tears. 

Yunho, however went in the other direction for in-your-face glitz and glam. He opens with Dang Diggity Bang, originally by Jongkook’s close friend and colleague Haha. Standing at the edge of the wings, Changmin can see the pleased grin on both Jongkook and Jaewon’s face as Yunho raps and sings slickly, hyping the audience into doing a Mexican wave with him. 

They oblige, with much enthusiastic hollering.

It’s December, but right now on set it feels like a vibrant summer festival instead. BoA has an ear cup of her headphones held up to one ear, and Jongkook is talking into the other. 

Then there’s a dazzling display of lights, and Yunho strips off his colourful reggae jacket to show a sharp black pinstripe blazer beneath. The music segues into Psy’s Gentleman, and the crowd lets loose another encompassing cheer. 

Changmin stares, entranced. He’s not biased. Yunho pulls the song off better than Psy; young, handsomer, more vibrant, more energetic. He’s doing all of Psy’s original choreography and he’s incorporate his own moves as well, a mix of modern dance and the urban ballet he teaches. 

He does things that someone wearing a suit shouldn’t be able to do, and he does them well. 

After going “Mother father gentleman”, there’s a pop, and confetti showers the audience to their delight. 

Then Yunho does something, and the top he’s got wearing beneath the buttoned blazer rips, and then suddenly he’s not wearing anything under it at all. 

Only two buttons separate Yunho’s bare skin from the many eyes both human and camera in front of him. The iconic synthesiser beat that signals TVXQ!’s Mirotic sounds, and the crowd goes mad. 

The noise is deafening. 

Yunho’s amazing. 

He dances, and sings, and raps the bridge, and leaps around the stage. Somehow those two buttons don’t falter. Changmin’s got a very close eye on them, but they stay firm and Yunho doesn’t do anything too crazy, like Henry last week whipping his top off and flinging it into a cluster of bewildered but pleased schoolgirls.

(Taeyeon wasn’t pleased. They were singing an epic love ballad, which was no place for stripping.)

It’s enough. It’s a performance designed to make the audience fall for him, like the lyrics. 

The final stanza comes, and Yunho lets the backup singers do the main melody line, while he steps up his dancing and starts ad-libbing in accompaniment. He even does a lower baritone coloratura, a quick run of notes that starts at a respectably high range and goes down, that makes Jongkook beam.

Then one final “I got you under my skin”, and Yunho’s performance is done. 

The harsher performance lights dim, and the studio lights come on to paint him in a different gradient. He’s still holding his position, whilst the audience votes. Their blood is still up, from the endless catcalls and whistles. 

From the shadows, Changmin can see his chest heaving with every breath. He’s dripping with sweat, and radiant from the exertion. He’s got his eyes focused on the giant sponsored Samsung screens that show the ticking tally of the vote. 

Changmin follows his line of sight, and blinks at the numbers that have come to a stop. He stares at them, and rubs at his own eyes. Looks again. Shakes his head. Looks yet again. 

It can’t be. Yunho and him are tied for the same score!

 

--

 

Yunho comes offstage, fairly vibrating with joy and a post-performance adrenaline high. He sees Changmin and gives a jubilant shout. “Changminnie!”

Changmin’s hauled in for a tight hug and a hearty backslap. He’s vaguely aware that the cameramen have begun to circle, now that there are two of them. He hugs Yunho back, and despite himself, presses his nose into the curve of Yunho’s neck to inhale the scent of his sweat.

He smells like hair spray, the foundation powders and underneath it very faintly, strawberries. Most of all he smells like himself, a clean and sharp musky tang. 

It’s not the time nor definitely the place but. But. Changmin grows hard. 

He’s mortified and disgusted with himself, because what kind of crazy pervert sticks their face into their friend’s sweat and then get excited by it in a very public place? He makes to pull away, but Yunho’s still got a strong arm hooked around Changmin’s neck, and he’s not letting go.

Yunho beams at Changmin, white teeth out in full force in a dazzling display. Then he goes, effusive, “we’ve got the same score, Changmin!” 

Oh. Yunho was watching too.

Changmin’s blushing. It’s not from the close proximity of Yunho’s face to his. Absolutely not. “You should ask for a recount!”

Yunho’s eyes widen, and then narrow. “What?”

Changmin gestures to the set, which is receding in the distance, because Yunho’s steering him backstage. Myunghwan trails after them, camera aloft. “Ask them for a recount! Your score should. Be higher!”

Yunho’s laughing a full-blown belly laugh, head thrown back. 

Oh, oh, he’s magnificent like this. Changmin gazes helplessly at him, feeling somewhat like a doomed fly trapped in the glittering majesty of a (very friendly?) spider’s web. 

Then he yelps, because Yunho’s tightened his arm, still around Changmin’s neck, such that he’s got Changmin in a headlock and he’s rubbing his knuckles hard into Changmin’s hair. 

Changmin squawks, feeling his hair, already stiff from product and spray, get scrubbed backwards, and up. He probably looks like he’s just gotten electrocuted. That wouldn’t be too far from the truth. It’s just not electricity that does him in. “Augh, what, get off!” 

Yunho does, still chortling, and then he reels Changmin back in again, so they are plastered face-to-neck for a brief heart-stopping moment, then Yunho’s got his mouth at Changmin’s ear, “I’ll do that again if you try to put yourself down one more time in front of me!” 

Changmin tries to pull away. He’s ticklish, and having Yunho’s mouth at the helix of his ear isn’t doing anyone any favours. Least of all his dick. “All right, all right! It’s fine the scores are fine it’s all fine we’re fine!”

“That we are,” Yunho agrees, and gives him another tight squeeze about the shoulder. Then he has to let go, because Wendy and Henry fall on them, laughing. 

 

-- 

 

Amber wins the Medley challenge, whipping the crowd into an arguably more animated frenzy than Yunho, with her spirited covers of Shake That Brass and Uptown Funk. 

She’s got everyone all excited and jumping along, the various placards in support of different contestants bopping to the beat. Jaewon gets so hyped he actually gets up on the judges’ table to dance, Bruno Mars’ original choreography flowing slickly from his limbs. BoA falls to her side giggling, while Jongkook can’t stop shaking his head with a giant grin wreathing his face. 

Their tied score means Yunho and Changmin come in second this week, for this particular challenge. 

It’s clearly of no interest to anyone but Changmin himself, who finds his gaze returning again and again to the giant screens on screen, where a line says “YUNHO/CHANGMIN | 2nd | 94.0”. 

Chanyeol is the one who goes home this week, and it’s clear that he doesn’t quite believe the result. He doesn’t throw a fit. But it’s a close shave, especially when recording is done and the producers try to herd him off to one of the rooms backstage for his exit interview. 

Youngmin cocks his head at the remaining eight of them. 

“Conference room for next week’s briefing,” he says. Changmin mouths along, already used to hearing those words after so many months.

 

--

 

In a different life 

너와 나의 세상이 

In a different life 

만나는 그날 

In a different life

-- IN A DIFFERENT LIFE.

 

아스라이 핀 한번의 미소가 

이토록 아름다워 

Beautiful stranger 

Beautiful stranger

-- BEAUTIFUL STRANGER. 

 

그리운 사랑아 내 사랑아 날 돌아볼 수는 없니 

입술이 닳도록 널 불러 봐도 닿을 수 없나봐 

세상 어느 곳에 있어도 난 너를 찾아갈게 

숨이 멎는 그 날이 와도 난 너를 기다려 

다시 사랑하고 싶어 미치도록 그리운 사랑아

내 사랑아 

-- 눈물 같은 사람 (A PERSON LIKE TEARS).

 

Chapter Text

 

“Objectification is bad… uh, I think Yunho’s a great performer.”

-- SHIM Changmin (31), chef, interview segment for Ep 9 Duet challenge. 


“I know we are all working very hard and everyone is very serious about the singing competition. But sometimes when you step back and look at all the undercurrents and undertones and unresolved sexual tension floating around… I feel like I’m on Terrace House instead of Sing!Idol.”

-- Henry LAU (30), music producer, interview segment for Ep 7 Battle challenge.  


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Medley Challenge winner: AMBER

 

The next week, Youngmin explains, is a little complicated. Their weekly challenge theme is called “PAY IT FORWARD”, which doesn’t tell Changmin a lot about its nature at all.

“We’re going to a quick poll of you eight now,” Youngmin says, sketching out the details on the whiteboard in the conference room. “You get to do a random draw first, from a pool of your names, eight in total. So you will pick a randomized name of another contestant. You’ll have five minutes to think of a song that is either something you really want that contestant to sing, or something you feel they should challenge.”

“Kind of like a musical Secret Santa,” Henry interrupts. 

He gets a mild glare for jumping in, but Youngmin concedes, “yes, you can explain it that way. You’ll have to submit that song choice to the production team here and now. No further changes can be made to your decision after that. Tomorrow morning, we’ll share your allocated song choices to all eight of you individually. You have one week to learn and prepare for this particular song, inclusive of any blocking or sets you wish to have the props department create.”

He pauses, and looks at them. “It is fine for you to practice your song choices in front of each other, but all, ah, Secret Santas, please refrain from sharing your identity as the Santa that chose their song choice, to the contestant you picked. We will announce that at the end of the Pay It Forward challenge recording, next week.”

There’s a lull. Zhou Mi goes, “is this because last week’s ratings dip to second, after that modelling show debuted?”

Youngmin’s face smoothens out into a placid smile. “I can neither confirm nor deny. Are there any questions regarding the rules for the upcoming challenge? No? All right. Please come forward, and draw a name. If you pick your own name, we will simply do a re-draw.”

 

-- 

 

By some stroke of twisted luck or fate, Changmin picks Yunho. 

He stares at the tiny slip, Yunho’s name written out in smooth ovals and flicking strokes, and goes to a corner to think. He has five minutes. 

Unbidden, he remembers how beautiful Yunho’s voice sounds, when he sang I Believe. It feels like so long ago now. That was the start of October, when they were just two months into this madness and the leaves were barely orange and Changmin’s crush was a simple thing. 

Now it’s the final few days of December, and leaves on trees are a distant memory. Changmin… doesn’t quite have a crush but.

Well. It’s not a crush.

He’s only got five minutes. He forces himself to focus.

He knows he wants Yunho to sing a ballad. Yunho’s voice doesn’t get enough appreciation for itself. Usually it’s drowned out by Yunho’s stage presence, Yunho’s dancing skills or even Yunho’s “intelligence as a performer”; as Jongkook puts it when praising Yunho for knowing the audience’s likes and dislikes and tailoring his performance to engineer the most catcalls and applause.

In any case. Changmin wants Yunho to sing a ballad. 

But what ballad to choose? He thinks about the artistes he knows Yunho likes, that Yunho has mentioned before to him, to the team, to the audience. He wants Yunho to sing something that can properly air his voice out in glorious display, where his lower baritone range gets celebrated in addition to showcasing high notes that Yunho does so brilliantly, but rarely. 

He thinks, and pauses. Then he goes to the head producers, and asks for a pen to write his song choice for Yunho at the back of the name slip. 

 

-- 

 

The mansion is starting to feel too empty for the eight of them.

Kyuhyun’s tried to nudging his assistant producer when they’ll be able to actually head home and sleep in their own beds by inquiring about the duration of the lease the production team has on the mansion,  but he just gets gently laughed at.

“No spoilers,” Kyuhyun informs Changmin glumly. 

Changmin pats him in commiseration. 

He’s tried asking Jooyoung too, when they came back from the two weeks of break, just to see how much longer he’s got being able to see Yunho daily like this. 

He had no luck as well. Jooyoung was infuriatingly mum on the subject, and only smiled. 

 

--

 

Youngjin and Jooyoung are the ones who find him, flanked as usual by Jihwan. 

Changmin’s in the garden again, shooting Hyunseok a habitual text about the team given Choidot will be closing in a couple of days for the New Year.

Jinwoo’s getting grumpy because Seonyeob’s no you, Hyunseok replies. He asked the other day how long will it be until you get eliminated because he misses having a competent hot part, and Garam nearly shanked him with his own tongs. 

Changmin snorts at his phone, and taps back, he was the one who chased me out of the kitchen when I had my fortnight off! 

There’s a cough behind him, and he turns to see Jooyoung beaming at him, while Youngjin has a more restrained smile on his face. Jihwan pans his cameras at the producers’ expressions, then turns to focus properly on Changmin.

“Morning, Changmin,” the two producers say in tandem. Changmin blinks and offers a semi-natural “good morning” back with minimal awkwardness.

They get down to business after the mandatory pleasantries, and Youngjin is the one who announces his allocated song choice. “The song your Secret Santa has picked for you is John Legend’s All of Me.”

"So you producers are really going to call the people who choose 'Secret Santas' now?" Changmin blinks, and digests it.

At least he’s heard the song before, and he quite likes it, as well as the singer’s voice. It’s an English song though, which means- 

He looks at the producers. “It’s either Wendy or Henry or Amber,” he guesses.

The producers only offer him twin professionally bland smiles. It’s quite creepy and Changmin hopes Jihwan has a good close up of the two of them stretching their lips in grins that don’t quite reach their eyes. 

“No spoilers,” they chorus, and Changmin gets his eye roll captured on camera, despite himself. 

 

--

 

He haunts the practice rooms after that, and the living areas, because there’s a tiny part of him that kind of maybe sort of perhaps wants to see Yunho’s reaction when he learns about his song allocation. 

Changmin lasts all of two hours before he realises how juvenile he’s being. He laughs, and smacks himself on the forehead. 

Then he takes himself to the kitchen, because talking to Hyunseok has as usual induced in the Pavlovian response of wanting to cook. 

He plugs in his earbuds, and scrolls to All of Me on Melon. He’s listened to the song casually before, but now he reviews it with deliberate focus to the melody. He’ll look up the English lyrics later today, after he’s familiarised himself fully with the tune.

Of course that’s when Yunho finds him, tapping him on the shoulder just as Changmin is humming “love your curves and all your edges, all your perfect imperfections” while shredding leftover stewed beef at the kitchen sink in front of the window. 

Changmin lets out an unholy screech at the sudden touch, jumping a foot in the air. A little bit of beef flies, smacking into the window and falling back down into the sink with a forlorn splat.

Then he turns, only to be confronted by the crooked curve of Yunho’s grin and sunlight glinting off the scar on his cheek. 

His face feels like it’s on fire. Oh, Jesus fuck. What even is his life. 

“Sorry,” Yunho says, but he’s grinning unrepentantly. “But also not sorry. Whatever you’re cooking, I’m calling dibs.” 

“You do realise that I may actually be only making enough for one,” Changmin says, wrenching out one half of his earbuds in irritation. His heart is still skipping along too fast, partly from the scare and partly because, well. Yunho.

Shim Changmin you stupid fucking idiot you focus you! He shouts in his head. 

Yunho’s smile dims slightly, and then brightens back up to its usual level of megawatt Yunho supernova

“Nah,” he says cheerfully. “You’re Changminnie. You definitely planned to make extra. It’s how you survive amongst the pack of wolves here.”

Changmin tries to glare at him, but his ears probably are still too red and his face serves to only make Yunho’s grin widen.

“Fine,” Changmin decides, cross. “You said I’m too nice, right? You can work for your supper, then.”

“It’s still daylight,” Yunho points out, but Changmin sniffs imperiously and orders, “shred the beef. It should look like what I’ve already done. Use your fingers. Do not mince or mash it.” 

“Okay,” Yunho says obediently, and starts to do just that. 

Changmin barks a frantic “wash your hands first!” and keeps a beady eye on him until Yunho’s diligently and meticulously shredding overnight stewed beef. 

He’s going at it too slowly, pulling the beef into long lingering shreds and inspecting each one closely to make sure there are no broken bits, but it keeps him out of trouble. 

Changmin snorts at himself, and tries to calm his heartbeat back to normal. What is he even thinking about. Jung Yunho is just a boy that spells pure trouble for him. 

In any case, Yunho’s playing contentedly with the beef, so Changmin goes to root in the fridge instead, and about in the cupboards. He emerges victorious with the vegetables he needs, as well as a bottle of semi-decent cooking red and a block of Parmigiana that he had wheedled the production team to buy a few weeks ago. 

To Yunho, he poses the sudden question of “Spaghetti or tagliatelle?”

“Spaghetti,” Yunho says automatically, and frowns in confusion. “Wait, what’s the other one?”

“Too late, you’ve already made your decision,”  Changmin says, and rinses the vegetables for a quick dicing. He’s got the garlic, onion, celery, carrots and tomatoes done in no time, to Yunho’s open-mouthed admiration. 

The other man has a mountain of shredded beef in front of him, and two more loin medallions to go. “Changminnie. You took three minutes with all that chopping. And everything looks so even!”

“I can do this in my sleep since I was a teenager,” Changmin says, and blushes a horrid and utter shade of red at how arrogant he sounds.

Fuck, He thought he had gotten rid of this blushing habit -nothing like months and months of exposure therapy to the enigma that is Yunho!- but the heat of his face says otherwise. 

Yunho’s looking at him like Changmin’s gone out and killed a full-grown deer with his bare hands and dragged it bodily back to the mansion to feed them venison, so Changmin can’t quite bring himself to care that he’s bragging horribly to the man he loves(!).

They work in companionable silence, and Changmin trades the bowl of shredded beef Yunho’s completed with a handful of dried spaghetti. “Wash your hands, and use one of the pots to boil water. Put some salt in it. When it boils, add the dried spaghetti.” 

Changmin pulls out a saucepan, and another frying pan. To the saucepan, he’s got a drizzle of olive oil and the garlic, onion and beef sizzling in no time. 

By the time he’s got the vegetables in the frying pan and the whole thing simmering in the cooking red, Yunho comes back over. He’s waiting for the water to boil.

“This smells amazing,” Yunho marvels, leaning too far in and sniffing with his nostrils flared.

Changmin pushes him back slightly with a gentle murmur. It won’t do for Yunho’s face to melt off from the heat.

What? It’s a very good face. 

“What is this?” Yunho wants to know. He darts a spoon quickly into the simmering mixture and tastes it while dancing out of Changmin’s reach. 

Changmin grumbles; it’s not quite properly seasoned. Yunho shouldn’t have tasted it yet. 

Yunho continues, “is it spaghetti bolognese?” 

“Bolog-” Changmin knows he’s probably got a crazy expression painted on his face right now, because Yunho practically collapses into laughter and gasps, “there, see, that’s the terrifying part right there.”

Bologonese uses minced meat,” Changmin says. “We are using shredded beef.

Yunho’s laughing so hard he can barely stand. 

Changmin takes a deep breath and lowers his voice to a socially acceptable volume. “Although you are partially right. Bolognese in full is called ragù alla bolognese. We’re also doing ragù, just a different sort. This is ragù alla Napoletana.” 

“Okay,” Yunho says, still chortling, and it’s clear he has no interest in the small yet distinct differences between the types of meat-based sauces northern and southern Italy has to offer. 

Changmin sniffs primly, and arranges the fresh basil into little rolled stacks, so he can do a quick chiffonade. Oh well. No one is perfect. 

“I’m actually cheating,” he informs Yunho over the delicate strips of green. The water’s boiling, so he gestures for Yunho to salt it, and to slip the spaghetti in. 

On the stove, the ragù is bubbling along merrily. “Real ragù alla Napoletana takes hours to make, and you let the beef marinate in the red and the sauce as a whole cut, and then you simmer it until it’s so soft, it falls apart on its own. I’m using overnight beef and we’re shocking the whole thing into tasting like ragù with higher heat.” 

“I don’t care,” Yunho says. He’s got an arm braced against the counter, chin cupped in one hand as he sits in one of the island counter chairs waiting for the spaghetti to be done.

He's gazing at Changmin. His grin at Changmin is fond. “It’s going to be delicious and none of the fancy cooking terms you’re spouting will convince me otherwise.”

Changmin can’t help it. He flushes a brilliant red once more. 

Yunho’s staring. He’s no longer smiling. Instead there’s a curious little glint in his eyes, and Changmin can’t quite read the expression on Yunho’s face.

It’s to this Jihwan and Myunghwan traipse loudly into. It’s an Extremely Good Thing for Changmin that their cameramen were in the middle of a conversation and thus looking at each other, when they first stepped into the kitchen.

By the time they glance over, Changmin and Yunho are facing them instead of each other, and Yunho’s got his arms folded on the counter instead. 

Changmin blinks. Then he squats down to rummage around in the cupboards for a grater, and busies himself grating the Parmigiano-Reggiano into little blond curls.

Jihwan takes umbrage at Changmin cooking without him again, as expected. 

“What is this,” he starts, puffing up to an impressive size, “what did I tell you about-

“No, wait,” Changmin fumbles, because the spaghetti is done and he needs a colander. 

Yunho saves him with a quick, “wait, Jihwan, he’s not yet done, he’s cooked spaghetti and now he actually needs to mix it in the frying pan, you should shoot this, look-” 

Changmin keeps his head down and heaps the cooked spaghetti into the frying pan, eyes studiously on the mixture whilst he sautés it with one hand. 

Got my head spinning, no kidding, I can't pin you down, John Legend is still singing in his ear this entire time. Yes. Changmin doesn’t know what’s going on in that beautiful mind at all. 

And I'm so dizzy, don't know what hit me, but I'll be all right.

 

--

 

He goes around humming the tune of his song choice to himself, to the irritation of the producers. 

“Everyone can hear that you are singing John Legend,” begs Jooyoung. “Can you please ensure there is a little bit of mystery left?” 

“Of course there’s mystery left,” Changmin says, since the producers have trained him to an asshole in front of the camera. He looks at Jihwan’s camera lens directly and fights to keep his ears at a normal colour. “You refuse to tell me if it was Wendy, Amber or Henry who chose my song. There’s your mystery.”

They don’t have any answer to that, and Changmin pats at the camera lens. 

“We’ve created a monster,” moans Jooyoung at Jihwan, when Jihwan changes tapes. 

Changmin just laughs in embarrassed glee, and heads to the practice rooms.

 

-- 

 

He pops his head into one, and see Zhou Mi inside. 

“Care for company?” Changmin asks tentatively, his Taylor in one hand, and smiles when Zhou Mi rolls his eyes and beckons him in. Jihwan trails behind him, having evidently sent Jooyoung on his way.

They work in companionable silence, until even the cameramen are bored and visibly restless, and make idle chit-chat. Changmin bends over his guitar and goes at a particular phrasing on B flat major, just for practice. 

“Was there something between you and Irene?” It’s something that Changmin’s had floating in his head for a few days, but he doesn’t even realise he’s said it out loud, until he looks up and Zhou Mi’s staring at him with a fixed look and blood drained out of his face.

Jihwan’s hovering awkwardly. 

Changmin takes another look at Zhou Mi, and faces Jihwan.

“Please,” he says.

Jihwan turns off his camera. Zhou Mi’s cameraman does the same. They nod, murmuring a quiet goodbye, and slip out the door. 

They’re alone. 

Zhou Mi clears his throat, and looks up at the ceiling. The cameras are off. It’s too early and the production team needs to come back to change the tapes. “The answer is no.”

“Oh.” Changmin doesn’t turn back to his guitar. He waits. 

Zhou Mi clears his throat again, and fiddles with his fingers. “There wasn’t. We didn’t. Nothing was started.”

He stops, and starts. Pauses again. Finally says lowly, “I’m too old for her, anyway. Too foreign.”

Oh.” Changmin thinks about the competition. He thinks about the own complicated tangle that is his mess of feelings for Yunho.

He doesn’t say anything else. 

Just reaches over, and pats Zhou Mi on the shoulder. Squeezes, and holds on. 

 

--

 

Changmin gets an idea about what he wants to do for his All of Me performance two days after he learns of his allocated piece for the Pay It Forward challenge. 

It comes out of the blue, and he can’t believe he didn’t think of it sooner. 

Because it’s Wendy, Changmin has no qualms about cornering her and laying it out in blunt terms. He’s got Jooyoung and Soyoung with him as well, just so that the production team is fully aware and will be able to tell him ‘no’ on the spot if he does anything that violates the rules.

She beams at him, and without even looking at the producers, goes, “of course I’ll help!”

Then she narrows her eyes at him. Changmin knows what’s coming. Judging from Soyoung’s laughter, she does too.

“What do you want to eat,” he sighs out in a single breath, resigned yet amused. “I’ll cook next week.”

“Yes!” She punches the air, and throws both arms around him.

Her cameraman gets the entire thing on camera and looks ecstatic. In the background, Soyoung’s murmuring at Jooyoung to text Hyejin and Jaeni. 

A thought occurs to him, and he tries his luck. “So did you choose All of Me for me?”

Wendy just flutters her eyelashes at him. She’s got her arms around his waist, and she leans back to look at him. “Nice try, bro. I want kimchi jjigae.”

Changmin looks at her in disbelief at the too-prompt reply. “You don’t even need to think about it?”

“Nope,” she says with much gravity, then giggles. “I have spent a long, long, long time thinking about this! I was even considering if I have to cry, in order to get you to cook again…” 

“What is wrong with you, child?” Changmin asks her, with horror that’s not entirely faked.

 

--

 

Somehow New Year’s Eve and the New Year come and go in a blur of practicing, the eight of them wishing each other many happy returns noisily, and hugs.

Kyuhyun breaks out his last two bottles of very well-aged white, and all eight of them gather in the living room to toast to health and happiness, and as Amber smirks, “winning this damned thing.” 

They all wince collectively, a theatrical cringe for the cameras. Wendy makes an exaggerated moue, and slides sideways in a stream of giggles. 

Changmin leans over and gently takes the half-full glass of wine away from her loose grasp. 

Even Taeyeon laughs, a rusty bark. The atmosphere is warm, and sprawled on the beanbags, Changmin cradles his own glass of white and beams up at the ceiling.  

“Hey,” Henry says suddenly. “Yunho. You’re the last of Team Jaewon?”

There’s a beat of silence and then everyone else gapes at Yunho.

“Shit! Henry’s right!”

“Wait, how did we not notice this?”

“We’re not a very big team ourselves. Look at team BoA!”

“Oh my God! You guys are right. Guys! We have four people! We’re the biggest team!”

“I am not a guy. Don't call me a guy.”

Changmin catches Yunho’s eye, who just spreads his hands and shrugs.

To the others, he smooths a hand over his hair and utters with a straight face and an arched eyebrow. “Sure, I’m the only one left on Team Jaewon. I dare you to take me down.”

They stare at him. No one moves, or even breathes. 

Yunho cracks up. 

Amber kicks at him, “dude, chill! I thought you were being serious!” 

Yunho laughs even harder at her exclamation, and sobers abruptly. He stares at her with narrowed eyes and without a hint of a smile on his face, and tilts his head back to look down his nose at her. 

The action lends an air of sulky arrogance to Yunho’s normally smiling face, and transforms him into a cold stranger. “Who says I’m not?” 

The effect is ruined when Zhou Mi leans over to prod him very hard in the ribs, and Yunho seizes up in laughter again. 

“We’re all mad here,” Kyuhyun announces to the room at large, and raises his glass in a toast to the cameras high up in the corners. 

 

--

 

This week’s stylist assigned to him is Sanghee. Changmin when he goes to see her, says without preamble, “please put me in a suit.”

Sanghee gives him a considering look. “Why?”

“Because I overheard you bitching to Eun-ah about how Yoonju likes to overload me in porn star fabrics,” Changmin says, and she snorts. “And I’m singing a very beautiful but frankly very cheesy love song, so I feel something classic might help offset all the sweetness.”

It’s the New Year, but Jihwan looks like Christmas has come twelve months early. He’s still filming but it looks pretty painful to be laughing silently like that. 

“Do I get to choose the cut of the suit, at least?” She enquires mildly. 

Changmin shrugs. “You get to decide how to suit looks like. I just want something clean cut and simple but how it actually looks on me is of course up to you.”

“We’ve taught you well,” Sanghee says approvingly, and Changmin coughs. His ears feel warm again. 

Jihwan mouths, over the top of the camera, at Sanghee, not well enough or he should have stopped blushing months ago. 

Changmin ignores him in favour of shaping his lips into a grin at Sanghee. “So… you’ll put me in a suit, right?”

“Come back in two days,” she invites, inscrutable as the sphinx.

 

-- 

 

The first time Wendy drags him to a practice room and plays the accompaniment she’s worked out for him, he stares, jaw open. Jihwan’s ecstatic, padding closer to zoom at how unbecomingly wide his mouth is. 

“Well?” She finishes with a flourish, and looks expectantly at him, smiling. When his staring continues, her smile falters. “NG? Is it a No Good? Should I add more chords or, I don’t know, go heavier on the bass…”

“I don’t know piano,” he says honestly, snorting when she huffs a laugh at him. “But is it too late to swap songs? Maybe we can ask the production team if that’s possible. What song are you doing? I’ll take that instead. You can just go onstage and play this and sing John Legend. His key is doable for girls, too.”

“Don’t think a few compliments is going to get you out of cooking after the recording session,” she warns, but looks pleased nevertheless. “So you like it? It’s not too simple sounding?”

“The judges are a fan of simple,” Changmin shrugs. “The simpler I go, the more things Jongkook has to say. Happy things.”

“Don’t forget how BoA just beams at you,” Wendy sniffs. “Teacher’s pet.”

He looks at her in amusement. “Who is the one who threw in some crazy Chopin music in the beginning in last week’s challenge, that made Jaewon do a standing ovation? On the table?”

She flushes, and tucks a curl behind her ear.

Jihwan muffles a cuckle, and moves in for the kill with a close up to her face. 

“It was just ten bars of Fantaisie-Impromptu, and I rushed anyway,” she mutters, and braces her hands at her hips. “So do you like it or not?” 

“Love it,” Changmin says, and finds himself grinning back at her, when she beams at him.

 

-- 

 

The previous week’s Medley Challenge airs on broadcast, and Changmin’s phone is once again bombarded by the outside world. Sooyeon and Jiyeon are taking turns to livestream in the form of emojis and internet slang their reactions at the challenge, and the other contestants.

They’re my friends, Changmin types in their Kakao group chat, that only consists of the three of them and zero crazy parents. He sends an Angry Rock Changmin sticker to underscore his point.

Also your rivals, Thing #1 (Sooyeon) points out. She adds, so Big Brother, it looks like you’ve set your mind to win this thing. Can I get a cut of your prize winnings to pay off the last of my student loans, when that happens?

She’s got new stickers. They’re of Happy Unplugged Changmin, which actual real Changmin doesn’t realise is a thing until now.

Changmin’s got his thumbs hovering over his phone screen, but Thing #2 is faster. Jiyeon’s indignation has a Sad Musical Changmin included for emphasis, hello pls even if he wants to help it’ll be me I’m the baby!!!

Precisely, so take a queue number, Thing #1 volleys back. 

Changmin pinches at the bridge of his nose. He’s in the Sing!Idol mansion’s living room, and the self-same episode is playing on the giant television screen. He can hear the others discussing the cut of the episode, and also evaluating each other’s performances on camera, but he needs to diffuse this thing before his sisters beat each other up and his mother rings him to ream him out for being a corrupting influence again.

Speak of the devil. Thing #2 texts, oh Big Brother, your Beautiful Stranger is my abso fave <3 <3 <3 <3 with a Wistful Medley Changmin sticker. She also attaches a recording whose thumbnail shows their mother on the sofa back at home. 

Changmin opens it. Jiyeon’s got her camera at an odd angle, too low. Likely she had her phone in her hands and was resting it against her legs. Half of the screen is obscured by something dark. Probably the edge of her top. 

The other half has their mother in frame. She’s staring at the television intently, leaning forward and face serious as though she is presiding over one of her students’ final examinations. The phone camera pans, shaky to the television screen, where Changmin’s bent over a guitar singing In A Different Life, and back to their mother. 

Changmin hasn’t seen her this still and quiet in a long, long time. Usually when they do meet in person, she’s imperious and scolding, a whirlwind of demands and instructions. 

He bites his lip hard, and brushes a finger over the screen. 

Jiyeon’s muffled voice ruins the magic. “So, Mother, what do you think of Big Brother’s performance?”

The camera shakes again, and there’s rustling. Their mother looks clearer. Sounds clearer, too.

“Denim on denim is so nineties,” she says, disapproving. “That Yunho boy is going to beat him. Since when does he know the guitar? He needs to play it more. Use it to charm BoA, and finagle a fan-meeting for me!”

The recording ends.

Changmin laughs so hard that Amber and Henry drapes themselves over him, demanding to know what’s so funny.

 

-- 

 

Changmin feels like it’s déjà vu and he’s back at Duet week somehow. Sanghee gets to dress both himself and Kyuhyun this week, and she’s apparently decided to have some fun at their expense.

She’s put Changmin in an expensive-looking suit, in dark charcoal grey pinstripe. It’s a lovely three-piece, and is fitted to him snugly in all the right places. It even has an antique watch fob, with a chain pinned to his waist coat. 

Yoonju will definitely approve of how Sanghee’s got the trousers to showcase his legs in their entirety, except that she’s busy on the other side of the waiting room dressing Henry and Yunho. 

The problem is that Sanghee’s also got Kyuhyun in a very similar suit, except in navy. It’s identical down to the watch fobs and shiny chelsea boots in black leather. 

“Huh.” The two of them look down at their bodies and exchange glances with each other.

Changmin snorts. Kyuhyun sighs, and goes, “yeah, sure, I love you mate, but you’re also too tall and too skinny, so I just look kind of dumpy and two sizes larger than you like this.” 

“You’re delusional, mate,” Changmin returns, and deigns to pat his cheek sweetly. Right on cue, their cameramen and the camera B-unit perk up. 

Kyuhyun’s got his eyebrows raised very high. “Has our Changminnie grown up? Are you pandering to the cameras now? I’m so touched by your personal development. Watch me shed a tear.” He sticks a finger into the corner of his mouth, and dabs the wetness at the edge of an eye.

“You’re disgusting!” It sends Changmin into fits of laughter. When he is calming down, he makes the mistake of glancing at Kyuhyun’s purposefully straight face, and that sets him off again.

“What did you do to him?” Zhou Mi arrives at the scene, puzzled by the commotion.

Kyuhyun shrugs. “I breathed and he fell at my feet.”

Changmin cackles harder. 

 

--

 

Changmin’s drawn the lot of going up onstage first, so up he goes, escorting Wendy, who’s looking resplendent in a matching charcoal grey gown with a silver sheen flirting at the edges, whenever she moves. 

She settles herself in front of the grand piano with a rustle of skirts. Changmin steps up to the standing mic, and pushes himself to give a proper smile at where the audience is hidden by the spotlights. 

It gets him a chorus of screams and sighs. 

“Marry me, Changmin!” Someone wails, to calls of agreement and counter-proposals.

“Such important matters require the seeking of permission from our parents,” he says into the mic. He hopes red pairs well with charcoal grey, because his face feels like it’s on fire. “And oftentimes, we don’t always get what we want in life.”

There’s loud laughter from the audience, and a final smattering of applause. They quieten, used to the process of the performances by now.

Changmin takes a deep breath, and waits for Wendy to start the first chord, the second, third.

Then he opens his mouth to begin. 

 

--

 

Changmin finishes his number, and lingers stage left. 

It’s becoming a habit of his. But Yunho’s been like quicksilver all week, and Changmin hasn’t managed to catch him practicing at the mansion; not even once. 

He’ll be able to watch the episode when it airs, or even the playback of the raw videos if he begs the producers, but it’s not the same. 

Selfishly, Changmin wants to hear Yunho sing the song Changmin’s picked for him live. 

Some of the others finish their number. Taeyeon just heads backstage proper without another glance. Zhou Mi hovers, then an understanding look crosses his face, when it’s announced to be Yunho’s turn. He squeezes Changmin’s shoulder, like Changmin did him, and walks off to be divested of his in-ears and mic pack. 

Yunho goes onstage. He’s also in a suit, but the array of lights mean he’s more light than solid and shadow from Changmin’s view in the wings. 

Yunho sings.

From the shadows in the left, Changmin stares.

Oh. He’s gorgeous. 

There’s no other way to describe it. 

The ballad itself is beautiful in its melody, and its lyrics. The original artistes sang it as a song of heartbreak. Yunho’s voice turns it into a delicate anthem of hope, instead. 

He’s brilliant, and the audience know it as well. Throughout the entire ballad, even at the stanza breaks, and the swells of the eight-player orchestra Yunho’s got playing for him, throughout all that, there’s no sound from the audience. 

No disruptive catcalls. No straggling cheers. No laughter. No name chanting. Perhaps they don’t even breathe loudly. 

Yunho’s voice soars, and soars. Changmin feels his eyes sliding close. All the better to appreciate.

It’s too soon, but it’s over. Yunho’s performance is done. 

The audience break into a groundswell of noise, volume eddying and amplifying. When the spotlights dim and the stage lights come on, Changmin can see that all three of the judges -as well as the entire two hundred-strong audience!- are on their feet.

He’s got a standing ovation. 

Yunho comes off the stage, eyes glittering with an indecipherable emotion. Up close, he looks beyond splendid in his grey windowspane suit and pale blue shirt, jacket now unbuttoned. 

He enters the wings and sees Changmin, and makes a beeline for him.

Changmin opens his mouth to offer his congratulations. Against his will, he can feel himself stepping backwards slightly, because Yunho's striding over with eyebrows drawn and blazing eyes, “that was-”

Yunho talks over him. Their cameramen haven’t yet noticed that they’re huddled together. His voice is hushed and hurried. His gaze is like a laser. “It was you, wasn’t it.”

“-really amazing, what?” Changmin is confused, and more than a little intimidated. He still feels oddly disconnected. Yunho’s voice is still ringing in his head, for all that the actual man is standing (looming?) before him. “What was me?”

“You,” Yunho’s got Changmin’s elbow caught up in a too-tight grip. Changmin doesn’t think Yunho’s noticed. “You chose this song for me.” 

“I…” Changmin thinks of the producers’ nagging.

He offers a weak, “no spoilers?” and cranes his neck to check backstage. There’s no one hurrying towards them yet; a near miracle. 

“How did you know?” Yunho’s eyes are still locked onto Changmin’s. He’s so close, Changmin can see the sweat beading down his hairline from a mixture of exertion and hot stage lights. There’s one sole droplet of perspiration sliding very slowly down the bridge of Yunho’s nose. “How did you know that’s one of my favourite songs?”

Changmin gives up. 

“I didn’t?” He’s certain, but it comes out like a question instead.

Yunho’s face is fierce, hawk-like. His eyes are like twin suns. Changmin wants to look away. He can't.  

“I know you listen to TVXQ!. And you should sing more ballads,” he gulps out, trying not to curl in on himself from the intensity of Yunho's eyes. “Your voice is beautiful in them.” 

Yunho leans in. His hand is very tight around Changmin’s elbow. They stare at each other. Yunho’s so close that Changmin can count his eyelashes, individual spikes of black. 

Distantly, a quiet part of Changmin marvels that it doesn’t feel like he’s blushing. There’s no tell-tale sign of warmth about his face or his ears or his neck. 

He’s so in love, it’s a physical ache in his throat and chest. 

You,” Yunho breathes. “Love in the Ice is a song that’s very close to my heart. I’ve never told anyone. My dancer friends won’t understand.” 

He leans in even more. His weight is a solid line along Changmin’s right. “You’re something else.”

For one heart-stopping moment, Changmin thinks something crazy. Like Yunho will. He may. Yes. No. It’s just Changmin’s brain being stupid.

But he only hugs Changmin, his cheek pressing stickily against Changmin’s. It’s quick, too-brief, and he’s pulling away, gaze shuttered. 

It transforms the next second to bland excitement, as Yunho turns to smile brilliantly at the cameras descending on them. 

 

-- 

 

Cards on the table

We're both showing hearts

Risking it all, though it's hard.

— ALL OF ME.

 

세상 끝에 홀로 

남겨졌다고 혼자였다고 

아주 오래도록 

내가 지켜낼 사랑이니까 

-- LOVE IN THE ICE.

 

Chapter Text

 

“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.

 

Chapter Text

 

“We’re all friends. It’s hard to say… Yunho. I want to say me, but I think Yunho will win this. Ha!”

-- CHO Kyuhyun (31), lawyer, interview segment for Ep 10 Pay It Forward challenge.


“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe Taeyeon and Changmin? I definitely don’t want to go up against those two. They’re scary.” 

-- Amber LIU (27), travel host, interview segment for Ep 10 Pay It Forward challenge.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Pay It Forward Challenge winner: YUNHO

 

By the time Changmin’s on set, and in the wings, the other news comes at him, hard. 

Taeyeon’s been eliminated too, as well as Henry. 

Kyuhyun lost by a point to his PK competitor; but Jongkook had stepped in to use his Judge’s Chance.

It’s too much for him to process at once. 

Vaguely, he knows the other assistant producer is prodding him till he stands shoulder-to-head with Amber. 

He cannot, for the life of him, recall the staff member’s name.

Everything seems a bit too loud.

Changmin and Amber are the only two left to perform in this round’s competition.

Now she’s next to him, face pale and tense. She’s spiffy in a shirt-and-capris combination, topped with flirty-looking suspenders and beautifully made up and hair coiffed and absolutely jittery all over from anxiety. 

Her hands are cold.

Changmin grips her right hand in his left. 

“Only Yunho passed, and he went up against this variety MC called Jinki, who sang trot. Yunho won with a rendition of Lee Moonsae’s A Little Girl,” Amber is murmuring staccato fast to him. “They’ve all had real singers up against them. Kyuhyun drew one called Jongdae, who apparently specialises in singing OSTs and getting them to debut at the top of the charts. His fans sound rabid. They were very loud.”

“But you said Jongkook’s got him, right?” Changmin can barely formulate his questions. He can barely think. “And Yunho- Yunho’s fine? He’s won, so. He’s safe, yes? He is still in the running?”

All Changmin can think of is how Yunho looks every week, happy and vibrant and so present and in the moment while competing and performing. 

It’s good that Yunho’s safe. It's critical that Yunho's safe. Yunho needs to be safe.

“I think so,” Amber says blankly. “They didn’t say anything else and the production team hustled Yunho and Kyuhyun in a different direction from.”

She can’t finish her sentence. 

On stage, in front of the cameras, Hyunmoo is wrapping up the setup to introduce both Changmin and Amber’s competitors. Changmin’s is apparently one of the vocals from the very pop group that generated Sorry, Sorry, which he had performed back in, oh, it feels like so long ago now.

Back when everything was simpler. Back when he just wanted to go home.

“Let’s welcome,” Hyunmoo is saying, “Kim Ryeowook!”

His is not an unfamiliar face, even outside of the context of his group. Changmin’s watched this singer on other television shows before, like Masked Singer and Immortal Song. 

He knows Ryeowook is very good. He knows Ryeowook’s voice is very good. 

“And for Amber,” Hyunmoo gesticulates, a wide sweep of his arms, “Krystal Jung!” 

The two competitors are up in front of the cameras with Hyunmoo, bowing at the audience and greeting the judges. BoA’s got her customary diplomatic grin worn tight on her face, and Jaewon looks smug, probably because Yunho survived. Jongkook, however, is unsmiling and ruler-straight in his seat. 

“It’s going to be us,” Amber mutters, shaking her hand free from Changmin’s and just plain shaking them, to work out the joints. 

She bounces back on her heels and little, and huffs out a breath, two. 

“Are you scared?” Changmin asks her.

“Yeah,” she says, in English. “You?”

“Shitless,” Changmin responds in like, which startles a laugh out of her. He knows Jihwan is filming him, filming them; and turns to look at the camera. 

Behind the lens, Jihwan gives him an “okay” sign, and mouths, “Changmin fighting!”

“Amber,” he murmurs. Hyunmoo’s hyping the audience up now, by talking both of them up. Their competitors are still flanking him, professionally placid smiles affixed on their faces. 

“Yeah?” she says again. She’s taking deep breaths now, and humming arpeggios at the back of her throat, to warm up her throat.

“Let’s kill them all,” he tells her lowly, the Korean tripping off his tongue. Changmin smiles as calmly as he can, when she lets out another peal of too-loud, too-anxious laughter. 

He can feel the edges of his mouth wobbling, and steadies them. 

 

--

 

They go out on stage, the studio lights fully up and strong. At least they’re better than the stage lights at full force; Changmin can still see the judges, and the audience, as well as their competitors for today.

Hyunmoo makes the necessary introductions, and they bow at their competitors. Amber tries to straighten after a second, and a ripple of laughter weaves through the audience when Changmin puts a hand high up on her back and forces her back down. 

They hold the bows for three seconds, as do their competitors.

Hyunmoo jokes, “wow, things are heating up in here. This is looking to be a great fight. These guys are serious!”

Then they all straighten and their song choices get introduced. There’s a roar in Changmin’s ears, and he doesn’t quite hear what Ryeowook and Krystal are singing as song choices, even though he swears he’s paying attention.

He hears it when Hyunmoo announces Amber’s song choice, though. She’s got BoA’s Don’t Know What To Say. Changmin blurts out that it’s one of his mother’s favourite songs by BoA (who bows in her seat, at his revelation) to more laughter from the audience.

The crowd cheers when Amber inclines her head, and BoA calls out from the Judges Table, “do well, Amber! I’ll be watching!”

They’ve got a final decision to make before everyone kicks off their PK performances, and that’s the order they are competing in, for the Changmin v. Ryeowook; and Amber v. Krystal matches.

At that very moment Changmin maybe hates the production team a little, because there’s dragging out and there’s dragging out.

He just wants the studio lights to dim and the stage lights come up and he can pour his heart into singing We Are! and be eliminated in peace, already. 

Do your best, he shouts at himself from inside his head, at the same time he’s got a whisper, you’re going to fail and then you’re going to have to say goodbye to Yunho and also apologise for whatever you’ve done to piss him off, tucked at the back of his head. 

Hyunmoo makes them play gawi-bawi-bo, of all things, to sort the matches. Amber and Krystal end up going first, with Amber singing first, then her competitor. 

For Changmin’s match, which turns out to be the last for the day, his competitor Ryeowook will sing first.

Amber goes to centre stage, but Changmin doesn’t head back to the wings. Instead, Hyunmoo guides him, Krystal and Ryeowook to the side, to stand with him, just a a little ways from the Judges’ Table.

It’s the first time Changmin’s standing at this section, during a performance. Usually it’s centre stage for him, and then at most moving a few steps forward post-performance during Judges’ Critique, then to stage left and backstage proper if he doesn’t linger to watch.

It means he’s able to overhear snatches of conversations from the audience.  

“...Changmin is so tall!”

“-- really, Amber?”

“Changmin can’t really sing though, not like Kyu. But he's quite cute.”

“-watched Krystal in a drama before, oh my god, she slayed everyone in there-”

“-ry? But Yunho won!”

“Yunhoooooooo. He’s so handsome! My forever king!”

“-prefer Changmin. His voice is cleaner and clearer-”

“-did you know that Yunho was nearly an SM trainee before? I heard this from my colleague who heard it from her cousin who was an SM trainee for a year before dropping out.”

Changmin perks up, ears straining to catch that particular tidbit. He wonders if it’s true. Shifting,  he tries to sidle slightly closer.

He ducks his head when Ryeowook turns at his side, attention attracted by Changmin’s movement.

The girls behind them don’t pay them (nor the frankly stunning performance Amber’s putting on in front of them, which is a pity because Amber’s very clearly singing with her heart tonight) attention. They sound like ardent fans of Yunho. 

“-dances so beautifully?”

“Yes! And I heard that his voice was even better as a teenager, but he got sick and also I think he got mugged? Like right before his audition, so he showed something that wasn’t up to standard. And him and Hyukjae flunked out of auditions after that! But she said she remembered him because they all ended up being friends anyway, and Yunho even taught her how to dance when SM’s dance teachers were all yelling at her.”

“-not just that, he can sing-”

“Yes, his voice!”

“So beautiful.”

He’s beautiful.”

“God, I just want to bring him home.”

“Ha! You wouldn’t know what to do with him, then.”

“-run away screaming.”

“I’ll just sit and stare at him. That face! Those legs! That voice!”

“He did A Little Girl so well tonight. I’m surprised he knows Lee Moonsae!”

“I’m surprised you know Lee Moonsae.”

“Yeah, well, my dad has all of his- what do you even call them? Those giant black large CDs…”

“Haha!”

“Well, it is a song for Reply 1988. I mean, it’s Park Bogum!”

Next to him, Ryeowook turns, and looks directly at the bunch of chattering girls. They quieted, likely chastened. 

Ryeowook turns back, and does a tiny bow at Changmin, a half-inclination of his head. 

Surprised, Changmin mirrors him. 

"It's disrespectful," Ryeowook offers softly, as way of explanation. He's also in a suit and his eyes are expertly outlined in black eyeliner. "They should pay attention while the performers sing. It’s only polite."

"Indeed," Changmin doesn't want to be found guilty of the same crime, so he leaves it at that and faces forward again. 

He can't resist pumping the air in victory though, when Amber's clearly unfazed by gossiping chatter from the audience (if she was even aware of it), and wins her round against Krystal.

 

--

 

It's now Changmin's round, final for the day.

Beyond the cameras, at stage left, he sees Amber lingering, waving a staff member off. 

Ryeowook goes to stand at the centre of the stage. The crowd hushes. 

He's compact, much shorter than Changmin, and the visible height difference has already made Hyunmoo crack a couple of jokes at their expense, though without malice. 

Jokes aside, his height clearly hasn't made any dents in his stage presence. Ryeowook moves with ease, relaxed and smiling. He bows again at the audience and goes simply, to straggly cheering from the back rows,  "I hope we all have fun tonight!"

The fans in the front rows are clearly loyal, some of them even frowning and fervently holding up fan made signs of Changmin's name, and the other contestants'. Applause from them is weak and pointedly so. 

It doesn't seem to faze Ryeowook. His smile stays, and he brings his mic up.

The song he sings is a cover of an older ballad, and it's evident from the first few lines just how polished and comfortable his techniques are. 

Changmin just clutches his own mic harder, and wills himself to breathe, slow and deep.

When the final note from Ryeowook rings, there’s a slightly pregnant hush, then applause sounds.

Whilst loud, it’s scattered, and almost grudging.

Again, it’s as though Ryeowook’s indulging in a private joke of his own. He even offers an affable nod to Changmin, and a sincere-sounding “good luck”.

Then it’s his turn, and through the roar from the audience, and Hyunmoo hailing him, Changmin forces his legs to move, and his mouth to smile.

There are other people standing with Amber now, in the wings, but the stage lights have come on in a flood of brightness, and Changmin can’t quite see beyond a couple of metres in front of himself. 

He goes to centre-stage, and bows, as is his wont, to another roar from the audience.

Hyunmoo’s speaking again. Changmin hears his voice in duplicate; over the speakers, and also from somewhere further in front, off to his left, “our final song for the night! Changmin, are you nervous?”

There are a few “Of course!”s shouted from the audience, slightly jeering, although their ire is clearly not aimed at Changmin. It's clear that the live audience tonight has their patience hanging by a thin thread courtesy of the production team, and Hyunmoo is unfortunately visible as a target.

Changmin just inclines his head again at where he thinks Hyunmoo is standing, and goes, “yes.”

“Well,” Hyunmoo’s practiced joviality washes over him, “do your best anyway! Our dark horse is always full of surprises!”

Changmin takes a deep breath, and another. Folds his hands before himself. He knows he’s got his mic clutched in a death grip. 

Then the guitar introduction to We Are! sounds, and he raises his head, and his hand. 

 

--

 

Against his own expectations, he beats Ryeowook.

The other man clearly harbours no hard feelings; he even goes to Changmin and offers a hug of congratulations.

Changmin’s barely aware of himself folding polite arms around the singer. In his head, the words one more week, you get one more week, beat a steady drumming staccato. 

Somehow he’s on stage left, and Jooyoung’s back, although he’s got his face shaped into a bland expression, standing just behind Jihwan with his habitual camera braced on his shoulder.

He registers them both visually, but only just. Changmin offers a distracted smile to the lens, but his mouth feels frozen and his attention is pulled towards the two figures next to Amber.

Yunho, and Kyuhyun.

Kyuhyun’s slapped an arm around his back in hearty congratulations before pulling away, but Yunho doesn’t step forward. 

Were it any other week, Changmin knows they’ll probably be hugging by now. 

Yunho’s hugs are some of the best in the world, in his sheltered opinion.

Instead, Yunho’s got a brotherly arm braced about Amber, but he inclines his head at Changmin, and offers a neutral “congratulations, Changmin.”

Changmin knows the cameramen are filming. Amber’s cameramen is right behind him, and Myunghwan is peering in from the doorway to backstage. He knows the atmosphere is odd, and Kyuhyun’s darting inquisitive glances between himself, and Yunho, and he’ll probably interrogate Changmin tonight, in the privacy of their room. He knows he won’t be able to solve whatever it is that’s gotten Yunho angry with him, here and now. He knows he should probably keep his head down and his mouth shut and scurry backstage and maybe lie low until they’re all more composed. 

But he can’t stop himself from blurting out, “is this all of us, now?”

“Yes,” Amber says. She’s won too, but it’s clear that she doesn’t feel much like celebrating, either.

 

--

 

And then there were four.

Suddenly, they’re busy with publicity schedules and whatnot.

Life as the top four(?!) of Sing! Idol actually looks quite different from life as the top twelve, or top ten, or top however many they were, in the weeks past. 

Changmin realises with a start that 

  1. they were pretty much living in a bubble at the Sing! Idol mansion, and just going through the repeated process of preparing and competing weekly 
  2. the nation seems to have caught Sing! Idol fever overnight because. Where he could walk down the street unaccosted when they were given a fortnight’s worth of break; now that’s impossible. He can’t go a few steps during the breaks -scarce but still present in their PR outings- without someone going either in his face or behind his back a variation of “Chef Shim!”, “Changmin!”, or notably once “oh my god it’s that tall shy boy- you know, Yumi, in that singing competition, my daughter is in love with him, I hear he cooks!” 
  3. strangers actually seem to know his face, something that he had known intellectually but not know know 
  4. he’s in the top four of Sing! Idol by some stroke of luck.

When he says this to Kyuhyun, especially the final point, he just gets a hard smack around the back of his neck.

Changmin doesn’t flinch from the pain, but his eyes water from the effort. He’s only just managed to control himself from slapping back in reflex.

“I didn’t know lawyers would have such good forearm strength,” he grounds out, one hand cupped over the afflicted area. 

“Mate, stop whinging, it’s a little love tap,” Kyuhyun dismisses, and sniggers. “Serves you right. No need to humble brag when there are no cameras around.”

They’re in their room after a gruelling day of events and a lot of talking and smiling and waving and absolutely no singing. There was a press conference and a meet-and-greet with a selected few members of the press where they had to keep smiling at what felt like a wall of flashing cameras.

At the end of it, Changmin was so blinded by all the lights that he just bared his teeth in what he hopes is a palatable grin, and waved robotically while spinning repeatedly from side to side in a half-turn. 

It didn’t help that he was sandwiched between Amber and Yunho. 

Yunho’s still not talking to him; instead choosing to speak at Changmin whilst smiling vaguely past his ear if absolutely pressed to do so. 

Kyuhyun for one has definitely noticed. Changmin spent the better part of the afternoon trying to catch Yunho’s eye with not-quite-a-little desperation, whilst equally avoiding Kyuhyun’s increasingly inquisitive glances with the same fervour.

Then the four of them were shepherded to yet another generic shiny Seoul mall where they spent time doing more smiling and more waving and frequently both at the same time, at levels and levels of shrieking girls (and boys) holding up light-board signs with their names and all sorts of bizarre requests.

“I’m not!” Changmin protests now, kicking a leg out at Kyuhyun. 

They’re both seated on their individual beds, and Changmin’s still got his feet on the floor while Kyuhyun’s contorted himself into a ball, curled up with his wine. 

He mentions the fanmade signs now, since they’re both comfortable and Kyuhyun has a tendency to bring out the worst sides of him in private. “Did you see some of the signs this afternoon? Children these days...”

“What signs?” Kyuhyun swallows another mouthful of white, and shifts so his head dangles off of his bed. Changmin hopes the blood that’s very clearly rushing to Kyuhyun’s head doesn’t give him an aneurysm. “Oh, you mean the signs the fans were holding up at the fanmeet this afternoon?”

“Yes.” Changmin throws a pillow not quite gently at Kyuhyun’s face, and laughs when it lands on its intended target. “Some boy held up a sign that went ‘ChangKyu now kiss’. He was standing next to a girl with an even larger sign that said Amber is hers for today.” 

“Oh yes, our many many shippers and fans,” Kyuhyun turns his head at such a degree that he resembles a nonchalant victim in possession of a snapped neck, and eyes Changmin speculatively, upside-down. “You know they’re fighting on message boards about who tops?”

“What?” Changmin blinks. He thinks his mouth is open. “Who tops? What?”

“You know,” Kyuhyun says. He shifts again, so he’s flat on his belly, but at least he’s the right side up again and Changmin doesn’t need to give himself a crick in the neck, craning to look at him. “Who tops. Topping.” 

He puts his glass aside, at the bedside table, in favour of making an obscene but highly demonstrative gesture with his left index finger. His right index complements by making a circle with his right thumb. “Topping. Not pizza topping, mind you.”

Changmin throws another pillow at him. “Fuck off, straight boy. I know what topping is.”

“Ah yes, yes,” Kyuhyun rubs that offensive index finger over his chin in mock contemplation. “How could I forget, you’re out and proud amongst us.” 

“But,” Changmin manages, and sputters out a gasp when Kyuhyun flings his pillow back at him, right into his face. He bats it away and nails Kyuhyun with a vicious kick to his shin, crowing absentmindedly when he does so with a dull thunk. He’s hit bone. “But you? And I? You and I?

Kyuhyun scowls, partly from offence and partly from pain. “Do you mind? I’m a great catch.”

Changmin knows he’s looking at Kyuhyun like he’s grown another head. “Yes, I mind. We’re mates! Friends! Bros!”

"I am not a bro, I have class." Kyuhyun rolls his eyes so hard that Changmin can only see the whites of his eyes for a few seconds. “And. I know that. You know that. But do you think the viewers care?”

This is your fault,” Changmin says, and nails Kyuhyun with another kick to his knee. Over Kyuhyun’s howls of pain, he continues doggedly, “you’re always draping yourself over me in front of the cameras!”

“Fuck! Did your mother shit you out with built-in steel in your feet?” Kyuhyun grouses, rubbing hard at his knee. 

To Changmin’s accusation, he only spreads his arms out in a parody of defence. “It’s funny! You always look like you’re sucking on a lemon! And then Yunho looks like he’s sucking on a lemon, which makes it funnier. I like funny things!”

A jolt races through Changmin, and he blusters, “why are you talking about Yunho? He has no part in this conversation.”

Kyuhyun looks like he’s scented blood in the water. “Oh ho, now we’re talking.”

“What?” Changmin turns to look at the wall. It’s very white and very clean. The cleaning staff the production team has looking after the mansion are very good at their jobs. “We’re not. How is molesting me on national television funny? You and the stylists have a very odd and very acquired sense of humour.”

“Don’t try to change the subject,” Kyuhyun says, and actually gets up to flop himself onto Changmin’s bed, and on Changmin. When Changmin ducks away, Kyuhyun digs an unforgivingly bony elbow into his side. “What’s wrong with you and Yunho? Lovers’ tiff?”

“We’re not- I’m not-” Changmin looks at the ceiling again. Looks at the floor. He tries to duck away from Kyuhyun’s assault on both the body and ocular fronts, and fails on both accounts. “There’s nothing! What lovers- we’re not- he’s not- I’m not-

“Okay, I’ve broken you,” Kyuhyun declares, and pats him not-quite-gently on the cheek. “What did you do to piss your better half off? Do you know when he absolutely has to, he talks to your ear now? It’s quite fascinating to watch. So how did you two go from silently communicating via brow raising and eye-fucking to that? Amber and I are taking bets when he’ll get tired of your ear and what body part of yours he’ll choose to talk at next. She picked your philtrum. I chose your left eyebrow.”

“I’m not- He’s not-” Distantly, Changmin knows he sounds like a broken recorder.

His face is on fire.

Kyuhyun lets him go on for a bit more like that, then grows bored and takes pity on him. “No, really. What did you do.”

What makes you think I did anything!” Changmin grounds out, and shoves a shoulder hard into Kyuhyun’s chest. 

It doesn’t do anything to budge Kyuhyun’s weight, shockingly heavy for someone who seems to drink more than he eats. 

“Oof, Chef Shim works out,” Kyuhyun says.

He’s seated himself comfortably -for him- on Changmin’s flank, and peers down at Changmin from his superior vantage point. “Spill. Why does Yunho look like you took his hypothetical dog out back and bludgeoned it to death with a frying pan in front of him? What did you do to the poor man?”

“You’ve- got- very- good- imagination-” Changmin chokes out, shoving at Kyuhyun’s thighs, and gives up, wheezing. “Kyu- please fuck off- you’re heavy-

“You gym, don’t you? Treat this as a weight-lifting session,” Kyuhyun advises, settling his weight more securely onto what feels like Changmin’s liver and kidneys. “Did you confess your love for him with more food and then run away from him, or something equally ridiculous? Like trying to seduce him by way of verbal diarrhea and flaunting your backside in too-small jeans? He likes to stare at you when the stylists put you in jeans, you know. It's a little disturbing but also extremely amusing. Like a dog with a bone.”

“You’re- fucking- deadweight-” Changmin scrunches up his face, grunting with effort, and manages to miraculously heave Kyuhyun off of him. 

He scrambles for safety, for the foot of his bed, panting with effort. “There wasn’t anything! I didn’t do anything! It was nothing! We’re nothing! I think you broke a rib!”

“Walk it off,” Kyuhyun dismisses, and eyes Changmin indolently across his bed. He folds his arms in front of his chest. “I notice you’re not denying the ‘love’ bit.”

Caught out, Changmin opens his mouth. Closes it again. Opens it. Shuts his mouth again so fast that his teeth click together.

Kyuhyun starts laughing, loud and long and obnoxious.

“Yes, yes,” Changmin says sourly, pressing a hand gingerly against his ribs. Maybe Kyuhyun needs to go to the gym, himself. Or go on a diet. “Yuk it up. Sure. You make a living with words. Bravo. Well done. Well spoken. Well played. I’m sure you’re missing the court, Counsellor.”

“Like taking candy from a baby,” Kyuhyun snorts, wiping a hand under his eyes, shaking with laughter. 

He swipes out with an arm, and then gets uncomfortably close to Changmin’s face, dodging when Changmin tries to punch him in the throat. “Tell me, what did you do-”

It’s at this pivotal moment when Changmin is debating the merits of taking Kyuhyun’s empty wineglass to his head in an effort to stop the incessant questioning, that a perfunctory knock sounds on the door.

It’s hurried, and the door opens before Changmin and Kyuhyun can do anything other than twitch minutely towards it.

Yunho’s inside, hand still gripped around the doorknob after wrenching the door open. He’s talking fast, his words hurried and worried and tumbling over each other. “Changmin, are you okay? I heard a shout, did you fall or is there… anything… wrong…”

He trails off, the stream of words petering out, and blinks at Changmin. And Kyuhyun. 

Yunho’s. In. His room.

Changmin blinks back at him.

Then he follows Yunho’s gaze, to where Kyuhyun’s practically sitting in his lap.

He squawks, and brings his foot up reflexively to kick Kyuhyun in the throat. 

“Fuck, Shim, not the voice!” Kyuhyun tumbles backwards, off of the bed. 

“I.” Changmin gets out. And blinks at Kyuhyun writhing around on the floor, gasping dramatically with a hand around his throat.

Then he looks at Yunho, who’s. Standing in the doorway.

Yunho is. In his. Room. 

“I.” Changmin says, and because his mind is blank, he just stares at Yunho, who’s still got his hand around the doorknob and who seems to be. Also staring.

It’s the first time in a week and more that Changmin’s allowed to look at him face-on, so he looks.

Yunho’s handsome today (Yunho’s handsome everyday), in a hoodie that says ‘SEOCHO DANCE ACADEMY’ in bold uppercase letters, and comfortable looking trousers. His hair is ruffled back and he’s got a pair of spectacles perched on his face, large black rims dominating and accentuating that slim straight patrician nose. 

His eyes are wide and his eyebrows are up and his mouth is a perfect red ‘o’. He’s a sight for sore eyes, and also Changmin thinks his brain fell out somewhere in the last couple of minutes, so he just keeps staring at the welcome sight before him. 

Maybe his mouth is open. Again.

In his peripheral vision, he thinks Kyuhyun is (also) staring at the two of them, gaze flicking fast and avid between the doorway and the bed. 

There is a lot of staring going on.

“I,” Yunho returns, and then turns pink. His voice is higher than usual. “Sorry for interrupting! Er. Carry on. Please!”

He steps back and then pulls the door shut again, very fast. 

It closes, well-oiled, with a soft click.

Oh. No more Yunho. 

Changmin thinks he’s hallucinating.

Was Yunho in his room?

What just happened?

On the floor, Kyuhyun is laughing again. 

 

--

 

“You’re a dickhead,” Kyuhyun says bluntly, when he has verbally browbeaten Changmin into detailing in chronological order every little interaction he’s had with Yunho for the past one-and-a-half weeks.

Changmin gapes at him from his bed. He’s just finished recounting about that time when he heard Yunho say “I love you” to someone else and then tripped in response. 

Never mind that it was (Changmin’s still cringing in latent embarrassment when he let himself think about it) Yunho’s mother on the phone. “What do you mean! I was clumsy, sure-”

Kyuhyun pulls himself into a sitting position, and draws his knees up, folding his arms around them and resting his chin on the back of his hands. He’s still on the floor. “You’re a dickhead. A clumsy dickhead.”

He’s not laughing now. His face is perfectly serious.

Changmin works his mouth around strangled protests, but nothing comes out. He settles for spluttering, “I don’t think. I was just.”

“Changmin,” Kyuhyun’s voice is even. He’s pinning Changmin with his gaze. Changmin thinks faintly that this must be the mask Kyuhyun dons, when he’s at court. “Changmin. He told you he prefers men.”

“Yes,” Changmin can feel his eyebrows draw together in confusion, because that was what he just told Kyuhyun. “Which I don’t have a problem with- you know my preferences are also-”

Kyuhyun waves an impatient hand. “I do. But he doesn’t.” 

“What?” Changmin doesn’t quite understand.

Kyuhyun sighs, and enunciates, still serious, “mate, think about it. I know you have a brain.”

“Hey!” Changmin thinks he should be offended.

Kyuhyun waves him off again. “Your big brain has helped you master an instrument at a frankly frightening speed, amongst other things, so put it to use now. He doesn’t know you like men. You accidentally eavesdropped on his private conversation. He said ‘I love you’ to his mother. You misunderstood. You asked after his hypothetical girlfriend and you were clearly fishing. In a bid to give a clear explanation and to debunk your query, he tells you that he was speaking to his mother. Then he mentions voluntarily and explicitly that he likes men -what did you say were the words he used?- ‘sexually and romantically’.” 

Laid out like this, in brutal simplicity, Changmin can only stare at Kyuhyun. 

He tries to swallow. His throat is dry.

It clicks.

“And you fobbed him off with a generic and politically correct platitude,” Kyuhyun’s merciless. “You told him he shouldn’t explain. And love is love.”

Changmin draws in a breath, with dawning horror. Fuck.

“He doesn’t know you’re gay, too.” Kyuhyun drives home the point. “Why would he volunteer such information to you? Mate. Do I really have to spell this out for you? The poor bastard has feelings for you.” 

“Kyuhyun,” Changmin says. His face feels numb. “I’m a dickhead.”

On the floor, Kyuhyun just raises his eyebrows at Changmin.

Changmin’s breath catches. “Kyuhyun. I love him.” 

“Self-awareness is the first step to self-actualisation,” Kyuhyun offers, abruptly cheerful. 

He gets up, groaning when his knees creak. “Fuck but I’m old. More wine?”

 

--

 

Yunho avoids Changmin with increasing enthusiasm, after that. 

Changmin thinks -still with horror- that Yunho likely misunderstood, because Kyuhyun was half on top of him and how it must have looked and with how badly he behaved with Yunho previously, it was probably. 

God, Yunho must think him the basest of hypocrites. 

They’re at another interview today, the four of them, but this one is held at the broadcast station instead, on a closed set, and will be televised.

In the morning, Yunho had asked Youngjin and Soyoung about the challenge schedules, and he shares with the three of them now, gaze firmly fixed on Amber, “the Sudden Death challenge will be broadcast in two episodes, across consecutive weeks. Youngjin says they’ll brief us on another challenge this evening, so we have slightly more than a fortnight to prepare.”

“Oh, it’s not yet the semi-final?” Amber drums out a beat with her fingers. 

They’re seated in a loveseat, she and Yunho. Changmin’s in an armchair adjacent to Amber, with another armchair empty next to him, apparently meant for the host for this interview segment. The producers had directed Kyuhyun to sit on the floor, perched on a comfortably big bean bag with a hideously loud paisley print. 

“No,” Yunho reports. He smiles at Amber. It doesn’t reach his eyes, which are unerringly focused on her. “Apparently there’s one more challenge, to glean out the top three. Then they’ll give us a break, before the semi-final and final take place. He didn’t specify the duration.”

“Maybe it’ll be another fortnight, like the last,” Kyuhyun suggests cheerily.

“Perhaps,” Yunho smiles blandly in his direction, gaze fixed determinedly on the bean bag and to Kyuhyun’s right.

In the armchair, Changmin just nods mutely. He needs to talk to Yunho. This can’t go on. 

The timing’s clearly not right, though. The host enters, smiling and waving at them, an immaculately coiffed lady in her thirties and an MC of some renown. 

They all straighten, and smile at her. 

 

--

 

Youngjin repeats the information that Yunho had shared to them, earlier in the day, and further elaborates on the upcoming challenge. 

Because there’s just the four of them now, the briefing doesn’t take place at the broadcast station, but at the Sing! Idol mansion itself. 

Or, they’re sent back to the mansion, with their individual cameramen still in tow, and everyone, or what remains of everyone has congregated in the kitchen, because Changmin’s still trying to work up his nerve to corner Yunho. 

His nerve has decided to manifest itself into European fusion cuisine today, and he’s scrounged together a hodge-podge of materials the production team have decided to populate the team refrigerator with.

Right now, Amber’s eyeing him in fascination. “I didn’t know you can use ice cream scoopers like that.”

Changmin blinks at her, and looks askance down at his hands, which are busily scooping out fruit balls from the cantaloupe and rock melon he’s unearthed. “Oh. Yes. It’s just to make them look prettier.”

“What are you going to use them for?” She queries, peering at the plate where he’s got strips of prosciutto di parma already laid out. Then she pokes at the pan he’s got on the stove, with cuts of Korean beef sizzling merrily away in parsley-butter and cloves of garlic.

“Oh, just, stuff,” Changmin says vaguely, his gaze hooked on the doorway of the kitchen, where Youngjin and Yunho are traipsing in, intent on conversation with each other. “Oh, er, hi! Youngjin. Yunho!”

He hears himself, and thinks he should have bitten his tongue off.

Yunho directs a civil smile at the sizzling pan. “Changmin.”

Youngjin is markedly more effusive, coming around to slap Changmin on the back, and waving a discreet hello to Jihwan, who is filming Changmin’s every movement. “Chef Shim’s working his magic again, huh. Can I get a taste?”

“Sure,” Changmin says, distractedly. From the corner of his eye, he sees Yunho take a seat at the side table. His smile hasn’t faltered. He’s too far away.

Changmin can’t make eye contact.

He would say there are butterflies in his stomach whenever he looks at Yunho, but the squirming feeling is too battered with anxiety. Maybe it’s mutant caterpillars. 

Maybe Changmin’s just dumb. 

“The butter is turning brown,” Amber offers, still in front of him, still observing. 

Changmin yanks his attention back with a yelp, and hurries to baste the steaks instead.

Amidst his concentrated efforts, Kyuhyun trips in with a jovial, “sorry! Were you all waiting for me? I’m here, I’m here!”

“Oh, you’re always here,” Yunho murmurs, and turns up the wattage of his smile when everyone -contestants cameramen cameras- turn to look at him. “Everyone loves Kyuhyun.”

Not Changmin. Changmin’s too busy trying to make sure he doesn’t burn the food. That will be a rookie mistake he hasn’t made for more than a decade.

When he tunes back into the conversation, with the steaks safely resting in their juices, and too many melon balls on the chopping board, Youngjin is explaining to the other three that the upcoming challenge “will have the theme of Role Reversal. Like you now know, our PK Challenge will be aired in two episodes, across two weeks. That gives you with little more than a fortnight to prepare this final challenge before the semi-final and final. Thank you for your efforts in helping promote and hype Sing! Idol! We’re close to the final phase now, and we’re all very excited to see what the four of you will prepare for this final challenge, before we head to the semi-final. If you need special sets to be built, or performance concepts to be realised, please come as soon as possible to either myself, Youngmin or Soyoung.”

He pauses, and when no one offers any interjections, raises his fists, “fighting! Good luck and work hard, guys!” 

It falls a little weak, because they’re too little people to properly muster a cheer, but Amber tries her best, raising her voice in a whoop. “Fighting!”

The three men echo her; Yunho focused and without a smile on his face, Kyuhyun looking faintly queasy yet excited. Changmin’s “fighting!” is softer yet, a beat slower than the others. 

He sneaks yet another glance at Yunho from beneath his lashes, while his fingers wrap a strip of shredded salt-cured ham around a melon ball. 

 

--

 

しみったれた夜をぶっとばせ! 

宝物に キョウミはないけど

ポケットにロマン、それと

You wanna be my friend? 

We are. We are on the cruise! We are! 

-- WE ARE.

 

Chapter Text

 

“I think Changmin works the hardest out of all of us. Don’t you think so?”

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


“It’s been fun singing with Kyuhyun. Kind of like…. A [bleep] brother I’ve never known? Oh, right, sorry, you’re going to have to censor that out, so sorry.”

-- SHIM Changmin (31), chef, interview segment for Ep 9 Duet challenge.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Sudden Death Challenge winner(s): THE TOP FOUR

 in chronological order

- YUNHO

-  KYUHYUN

- AMBER

- CHANGMIN

 

They’ve been told to make full use of the judges and their advice. Sooyoung, who came in in the middle of Youngjin’s spiel, shares: “for this challenge, the judges’ votes will not be tallied towards the final vote by the audience to glean out the top three, so they’re allowed to know and help shape your performances. It’s up to you to see how you wish to seek their help.”

Kyuhyun opens his mouth.

Before he can say anything, Sooyoung cuts him off with a toothy smile. “No, you can’t ask them to make special appearances in your acts.”

“Damn,” Kyuhyun mutters, to his cameraman’s long-suffering eye roll. 

Changmin thinks he hears Yunho snort, but when he looks over, Yunho’s face is a perfectly smooth, perfectly polite mask. His gaze is firmly on the steaks that Changmin’s plated and served.

Amber is impatient. She’s bouncing on the back of her soles and clearly raring to go. “Is that all? Can we eat now? Can you turn the cameras off? So we have fourteen days, yeah?”

“Yes,” Youngjin and Sooyoung say in unison, and exchange glances with each other. 

The cameramen shuffle, but their cameras remain aloft as Youngjin sighs almost carelessly, “before I forget- since Kyuhyun likes to remind me so often. You four - well you’ll be three then- will be allowed to go home after the taping of the Role Reversal episode. You’ll have another fortnight to prepare for the semi-final and final.”

Changmin nearly drops the platter of prosciutto e melone he’s bringing over to the team. The others react, although their surprise is more muted than his.

“We get to go home?” Kyuhyun thrusts a fist into the air. “Yes!”

Yunho’s not nearly as effusive. “Will there be another break in between the final and semi-final?”

Sooyoung steals a ham-wrapped melon ball. “Oh, no,” she says, words slightly garbled. “That’s recorded across two consecutive days then, in February. A day for prep, and a day for the showings. Live telecast.”

Yunho merely nods, but he jolts forward slightly from the reactionary slap Amber’s landed on his back. 

“Live telecast!” She doesn’t shriek, but it’s a near thing.

It’s the shrillest Changmin’s heard her. 

Sooyoung’s already reaching back out to the platter. Because Changmin’s already dazed from the verbal bombshell, and because she’s well, Sooyoung, he lets her. 

Two weeks! He’ll be able to pop into Choidot and actually work. Maybe Jinwoo will stop climbing the walls, and stop shouting at the hot part boys, like Hyunseok had texted him last week to laugh about.

Youngjin nudges her. “Stop torturing them. Say it in one go. This footage is going to be useless anyway because the nation doesn’t want to see you making such faces over Changmin’s cooking.”

That startles a laugh out of Changmin. It also acts as a starting pistol of sorts, for the others to dive at the food. 

It’s a testament of how far cast and crew are now comfortable with each other, because their cameramen give up the ghost without much fuss, and set aside their equipment to tuck in.

Sooyoung rolls her eyes at Youngjin and relegates them with the rest of the information, in between bites. Myunghwan grumbles that Changmin should have made Korean food, but he fights Sooyoung with his fingers, snatching at the largest melon ball with the most ham wrapped around it. 

Everyone’s eating. Except for Yunho. He’s smiling vaguely at no one in particular and the plates but there’s nothing in front of him. 

Next to him, Amber is already stabbing at the steak slices Changmin’s set out.

There’s too many people, and Changmin doesn’t want to say anything here. He knows he needs to apologise to Yunho, but so much of their friendship is exposed to the cameras.

He wants to apologise to Yunho, but he wants it to be for Yunho only. It should be private.

Here and now, all he can do is fish for the best and prettiest steak slice, one with a grey-pink ombre gradient running along the meat grain, and the most circular melon ball, neat with ham wrapped around it. 

Kyuhyun’s making frankly horrifying noises and chewing with his mouth open, so Changmin edges past him, and yet again past where Amber’s taken to feeding the cameramen. 

He ends up where Yunho’s seated at the counter, a slight ways away. 

He’s not done it so it’s noticeable, and even the crew is too busy squabbling over the food to properly care aside from a pointed glance Youngjin shoots Yunho, but. 

He’s too far away. It's like he’s erected a ‘don’t talk to me’ bubble about him. 

Changmin sidles over and places the plate and a fork in front of him. 

It surprises Yunho enough that he looks up, and into Changmin’s eyes. 

His gaze hits Changmin straight on like a solid punch to the gut. The mutant caterpillars in his stomach wriggle in anxious pain-pleasure.

Yunho’s eyebrows half-raise involuntarily in mute question.

Changmin talks at the fork. “You haven’t eaten all day. All the interviews. And. Running around. Have some meat.” 

“Oh,” Yunho says. “Thanks.”

He makes no move to touch the food. 

Changmin blurts out, “I’m just sorry it’s not kimchi jjigae. I know you like soups. And hanshik.”

He ducks his head. 

There’s silence, and then slight movement in his peripheral vision. Yunho’s fingers are creeping towards the fork. 

Changmin dares to look up again. The expression on Yunho’s face is guarded, and his voice is soft and soaked in wariness. “No, it’s fine, the food you make is lovely. You know that. I…” 

At least he’s speaking to Changmin. It’s been days. Weeks. Feels like years.

Changmin wants to take a chopper to himself for the way Yunho's looking at him, all wounded tentative caution.

Yunho’s got his fingers wrapped around the fork, but he’s still. He’s not eating. 

Instead his eyes are searching Changmin’s face. 

“I’m sorry,” Changmin says, and ducks his head again. Curses himself in his head. Stupid Shim Changmin you should have waited to say that in private how are you going to have a conversation like this there’s too many people! This is not meant for national television

He darts a surreptitious peek around. The crew are busy gorging on meat, and no one’s hands are anywhere near their equipment. 

Only Kyuhyun meets his gaze, and the man -whom Changmin is experiencing the rapid realisation that he might just become Changmin’s best friend when this entire singing farce thing is over- shakes his head, and clenches his fist in a slight pumping notion.

He quirks his head slightly to the right; to Changmin’s left. Where Yunho is.

Changmin looks back at Yunho. Who hasn’t looked away. He must have seen that. 

He opens his mouth. There’s a hundred things he’ll like to say, but what comes out again is a low whisper, “I’m sorry.” 

“What for?” Those dark eyes are still studying him. Pinning him.

Changmin feels like a dissected beetle under a microscope. 

“I-” Changmin nudges at the plate again. “Can we talk? Later? Away from the. Them. Eat. You shouldn’t starve yourself.”

He’s seen how sometimes, in the mornings, Yunho pops gastric medication when he thinks there are no cameras following him.

Pushing at the plate again, he looks pointedly at the fork in Yunho’s hand, and back up at Yunho. “Can we?”

He drums his fingers uneasily against the counter-top, but Yunho understands what he’s trying to say. 

Somehow, Yunho always understands what he’s trying to get at, even when he’s still fumbling to put the words together in his mind. 

“All right,” Yunho says, but he’s not moving his fingers and certainly not his mouth because the food is still there and Changmin’s just sure Yunho hasn’t eaten yet today. 

Then he laughs for the first time in Changmin’s presence in eons, because Changmin’s given up on Yunho feeding himself and he finds himself reaching over to grab at the fork, stabbing it into the beef. It’s probably only lukewarm now and Changmin doesn’t want to feed Yunho anything but the best but everyone is still around and beggars can’t be choosers.

It’s something vague at the back of his mind, but Changmin feels like his body can’t decide if it wants to plunge into a full-blown panic attack -he hasn’t had one in months, not since Hyunseok informed him his presence was required at the Sing!Idol mansion and that feels like a lifetime ago- or just get up and flail around. 

The mutant caterpillars feel like they have a marathon dance-off session in his stomach. 

His face must be a riot, because Yunho lets out another little chuckle. 

Changmin feels like he’s at the top of the world, even though Yunho’s laughter is high-pitched and more than a little startled and he cuts himself off halfway.

He only realises what he’s done when he looks up again and Yunho’s watching him with those dark dark eyes and the discreet eyeliner he’s been put in for the interviews, and there’s warmth beneath his fingers. 

Yunho's hand is trapped by his careless grip.

Changmin lets go.

He’s not even surprised to find himself blushing. “Sorry.” 

“All right,” Yunho says again. He’s lifting the beef to his mouth. “We can talk. Later.”

 

 

Changmin washes up in the kitchen, and heads to his room to wash himself up. 

Kyuhyun comes in to find him dithering over (of all things) clothing. Changmin was reaching for his old hoodie and a pair of jeans, but now he's not so sure.

Maybe he should wear a shirt and pair it with the parka he's packed for winter, instead.

Or maybe a jacket would work better. It’s not made for the Seoul winter though, and he wants to make sure he can speak with articulation instead of shivering and letting his teeth chatter incoherently at Yunho. 

But they'll be indoors. It's not like he needs the parka.

“Are you glitching, or actually worrying about what to wear?” Kyuhyun is incredulous, and more than a little amused. 

Changmin gives a rough shake of his head. He grabs the jeans and hoodie and his liquid courage before he can work himself up into the panic attack he denied himself earlier. 

Heading into the en-suite, he only remembers abruptly in the middle of his shower that he didn’t answer Kyuhyun.

Fuck, he’s a mess.

He comes out to Kyuhyun arching an eyebrow at him. "Hot date?" 

Changmin scoffs, and rubs a hand through his damp hair. "Are you writing fanfiction in your head? You of all people should know it’s nothing like that. I need to go apologise, and…"

"Chill, mate. I’m teasing.”

“Sorry, I.” Changmin laughs a little at himself, and takes a deep breath. “Sorry.”

“In case you are still in the middle of your freak-out and your body is on auto-mode… That's my alcohol you're holding. For your information. Just in case you didn’t know," Kyuhyun points out mildly. 

"Social lubricant?" Changmin says, waving the bottle in question with more than a little desperation.

"Fine," Kyuhyun rolls his eyes. "It’s only Yunho, who is weird and intense and intimidating as fuck to everyone but you. But fine! Sure! I can donate my finest bottle of apple soju to a brother in need. Fine! Even though it’s an odd as fuck choice and at the rate you’re going, you’ll prolly pre-game the entire bottle and fall over before you two even open your mouth to say ‘hello’ or do that hilarious eye-fucking shit you always do. Fine! Take my damned alcohol. But you owe me. I claim bragger’s rights when you two elope to New Zealand and adopt starving orphans from Zimbabwe or whatever."

"Don't be ridiculous," Changmin snipes, and pauses. Scratches at his neck. “Sorry. Thanks. I mean. I need to apologise. So… Apples.”

Kyuhyun just gapes at him for three full seconds, before sighing and looking towards the ceiling. “I have no idea why Jung Yunho finds you attractive.” 

Changmin opens their door. The apple soju he’s filched from Kyuhyun's stash is a comforting chilled weight sitting on his palm. "He doesn't. Still. Thank you. You're a good friend, Charlie Brown."

"Stop mangling great literary works for your selfish purposes and just go," Kyuhyun says, and throws a pillow at the back of his head. 

 

--

 

He goes over to Yunho’s room and stands in front of the door for precisely thirty-three seconds before he can work up the courage to knock. It opens before his knuckles leave the wood. 

Yunho’s got the door open. He’s in a tee and a jacket and comfortable-looking loose trousers. “Hi.” 

Changmin blinks at him. Yunho’s showered, too. The eyeliner’s gone and there’s still water clinging to Yunho’s lashes. 

Silence sprawls out between them, her embrace jagged with unsaid words. Changmin gulps, and finds his voice again. “Er. Hi!”

He’s been rehearsing an explanation in his head, repeating the words over and over to himself in the shower, in his room, on the way here. 

Now his mind is blank. 

They stare at each other a little more, and Yunho takes visible pity on him. He shifts a little to the side, so the way into his room is clear. “Do you… want to come in?”

Changmin takes a look into the room and promptly panics. He can see Yunho’s practice shoes, scuffed trainers and a pair of leather boots that must be on loan from the stylists. The outfit he was put into for the interviews today lies crumpled on the floor. The bed is unmade. 

He had it planned out. Changmin was going to come over with Kyuhyun’s apple soju, pour a drink for Yunho, offer a calm and concise apology to Yunho like a functioning adult, explain his own romantic preferences as well to prove that he isn’t homophobic, make absolutely no mention of Kyyuhyun’s frankly ridiculous claims that Yunho is even interested in Changmin that way, and wrap it up with apologising again for any hurt or misunderstanding he’s caused Yunho with his unintentional hypocrisy. If required, he was prepared to get down on his knees to offer a full courtesy bow.

He had it all planned out.

Instead Changmin realises he’s forgotten to bring shot glasses, and between the panic creeping into him and his mutant stomach caterpillars indulging in what feels like a full-blown riot, he blurts out, “want to go outside into the garden to have a drink?” 

Yunho blinks at him. 

Changmin blinks back.

They both turn to look at the window in Yunho’s room. It’s snowing outside. 

“Er,” Changmin says, but Yunho goes brightly, “sure!”

So that’s that.

 

--

 

They sit together in the garden on what Changmin has come to call, in the privacy of his own head, ‘their bench’. Yunho’s back is straight and he’s seated rigidly, back ramrod-straight and both feet are on the ground.

Snow is falling, but it’s light and hardly a January blizzard. Their breaths come out in curling clouds of white, barely discernible in the scant light. 

They’re both in huge puffy parkas, and Changmin wrinkles a nose at Yunho’s when he recognises the logo.

“Under Armour?” He says. Back in November during their break, he couldn’t turn without seeing an ad from the sportswear brand touting their new negative weather outerwear line. It was entirely obnoxious how they had basically papered Seoul with billboards of their celebrity ambassador, who, now Changmin remembers with a jolt, is a singer that Yunho listens to. 

“Yes,” Yunho laughs. He fusses with his cuffs, the smile on his face turning sheepish. “My mother. She tends to just run amok with her worry and even though I’m already a fully-grown man, sometimes, well. I pick my battles with her.”

“Ah,” Changmin hums, and thinks of his own mother being all imperious, “get a thicker coat, or has Hyunseok not been paying you enough? Grow a spine and demand a raise from him!”

“Yes,” Yunho repeats, and falls silent. He’s watching Changmin. Changmin can’t quite read the expression on his face.

“I,” Changmin starts, because it’s looking like Yunho’s not going to make it easy for him. 

He’s got shot glasses with him now, and a brazier of hot water that he’s placed the bottle of soju in. His brain had returned to him for a bit, so he had thought to grab them when they went through the kitchen to come out here. 

He pours a shot now, the heat of the warmed soju seeping through the glass, and hands it to Yunho very correctly, with both hands. 

The scent of apples is strong in the crisp winter night. 

Yunho accepts it with a murmur of thanks. He’s still got his eyes trained at Changmin, and he looks curious more than anything else. 

Changmin eyes him and inclines his head in a half-bow. Then he stands, and drops to his knees to fold himself into a fully-formed courtesy bow. 

Yunho leaps off the bench with a wordless exclamation. He’s still got his fingers tight around the shot glass.

The soju wobbles, but it doesn’t spill out. 

Changmin’s got his head very close to the ground, and his knees and feet are sinking into the snow. He hasn’t got any gloves on, and the snow is crunching under his palms and Yunho’s tugging at his arm but Changmin resists, keeping his head bent and his hands flat on the ground. 

He says as clearly and loudly as he can, “I am very sorry. Please accept my apology and hear me out.”

Shim Changmin, are you crazy? Get up! ” Yunho’s digging his fingers in and yanking at Changmin’s arm, then shoulders, but his grip slips and scrabbles against the waterproof fabric of Changmin’s parka. “What are you doing? Changminnie! Get up! It’s January!”

Changmin knows his own strength. He tenses, and doesn't allow himself to be budged by Yunho's jerking tugs. "This is my apology."

"Don't be crazy! It's winter!" Yunho's eyes are wild. He makes a move to put the shot down, to pull at Changmin with both hands, but Changmin resists. "That's my apology."

He inclines towards the shot glass in Yunho’s hand with a lift of his chin.

Yunho is scowling at him, disbelief and frustration making his nostrils flare. Then he tosses the shot back and says roughly, "you're an idiot, Shim Changmin. I drank it. Get up!"

It's the first time in a while that Yunho's been anything but terrifyingly civil towards him. The surprise Changmin feels slackens his limbs, and allows Yunho to half-tug him on his feet. "You accept my apology? You forgive me? Really?" 

"How can I not when you pull an asshole move like that?" Yunho exclaims, and lunges forward when Changmin makes to get down on his knees again. "I accept. I accept! Get up so we can converse like normal people!"

Changmin gets up, staring at Yunho when the other thwacks hard at the snow clinging on Changmin's trousers, and the edges of his parka. "You called me an idiot. And an asshole. And you basically said I'm not normal."

"You're a fucker is what you are," Yunho snaps, and pulls back when Changmin says, beaming, "I am. I am a shitty friend. Keep scolding me, please. I am an idiot and a asshole and a fucker and I am sorry."

Somehow, they're both on the bench again. Yunho's yanking at his hair. He's laughing, although it’s more out of disbelief than mirth. "Changminnie, you're ridiculous."

"I am." Changmin knows he's smiling too hard, his face is really a mess, but he can't help it. Yunho's finally looking at him tonight and his face is soft and open and even though he looks angry and startled as well but Changmin's just sorry. "I'm sorry."

"Enough," Yunho protests, but he's not angry, not really, and he’s helping to pick snow off of Changmin's collar.

Changmin doesn't know how that's gotten there, but. He’s just relieved. Yunho drank the shot. He didn’t toss that at Changmin's face and walk away. He didn't!

He reaches and grabs for Yunho's hand. They both don't have gloves on. Yunho's fingers feel like ice between his. 

"Yunho," Changmin says. "I'm sorry. I'm really sorry, I'm a shitty friend and please, please let me explain."

"I'm not the lunatic who's kneeling around in the snow in January doing keunjeol. Seollal is over!" Yunho says crossly, but he sighs and there’s a bit of a smile on his face, when Changmin points out, "you were also avoiding me."

"Sorry," Yunho says automatically to that, and Changmin shakes his head. "That seems like the word of the hour."

He pats at Yunho's hand and lets go, sitting back. His face is probably red but the light from the garden lamps and the mansion is dim, and the late January cold feels good on his cheeks. He can't quite feel his ears.

Yunho coughs, and shifts, but he’s relaxed into his seat on the bench. Changmin’s glad. 

Changmin begins abruptly, staring down at his lap, "I'm not too good with words so I'm. Just going to say it straight and I hope I don't piss you off again but if I do, just tell me straight and I'll. Explain or something."

"It's all right, I was also," Yunho starts, but Changmin cuts him off, "please just… Let me finish. I'm already making a muck of it."

Yunho doesn't interrupt, then, and he nods. 

Wanting to have something to occupy his hands than anything else, Changmin pours both of them a shot each, the second one for Yunho. He knocks back his own shot, and breathes through the burn of it, eyes watering. 

It tastes like fresh chilled apples. He takes another. The sting of it helps him focus.

"Right," he coughs, eyes watering slightly. "I apologise. I think there was some misunderstanding so. Maybe you think I'm a hypocrite and a homophobe and I'm. I'm not. I'm really not."

Yunho makes a move, a gesture, but Changmin hurries on, "but I'm not. I was just surprised. Really. And also maybe also a bit ashamed of myself because I intruded into your private conversation and that was just wrong of me in the first place. And I was rude but. Yes. I was just surprised because. Because."

He makes himself look up, even though he just wants to close his eyes and say everything and then go crawl to his room and maybe have Kyuhyun throw things at his head.

Yunho's only taken a sip of his shot when Changmin downed his, and he's still got the glass halfway raised to his lips, fingers wrapped loosely around it. Changmin forces himself to meet Yunho's eyes, and keeps meeting it, because he can do this. 

He owes Yunho an explanation for his own abominable behaviour, because Yunho is his friend

"Because I'm the same," he says, as slowly and clearly as he can, even though the mutant caterpillars feel like they're eating their way through his stomach and his chest. "I. I prefer men. Too."

Yunho's eyes widen, and his eyebrows rise, and his mouth opens. 

Changmin shakes his head, "no, wait, please. I. I don't keep it a secret, but it's not something I bring up actively unless it comes into the conversation and I. We never talked about this so you wouldn't know but honestly I. I was just surprised. I didn't know. I didn't think."

Yunho takes another sip. His eyes don't leave Changmin's. 

"I'm not good with this," Changmin says, and makes an awkward gesture that encompasses himself, Yunho, and the mansion. "Social interaction. Being friends with people. The friends that I keep. We’re only friends after really really long together. I’ve never. So I didn't know how to react and I."

"Changmin," Yunho says. His voice is very soft. He pats at the air between them. "It's okay. I understand. You don't have to talk this through in such detail. I was at fault too. I assumed the worst."

"Kyuhyun knows," Changmin goes, apropos of nothing, and he doesn't miss the way Yunho stiffens at the overt mention of Kyuhyun. "My mother outed me to him when she rang me -long story- so he knows. He doesn't quite understand because he's not, but. He tries to help. He teases, but. He's a good sort. That day when you walked in on us-"

"You don't have to explain," Yunho's furrowing his brows, but Changmin talks over him. "We were fighting over you, actually."

That clearly takes Yunho off-guard, and he jerks back in visible befuddlement. "What?"

Changmin pours another shot, and downs that too, huffing out a self-deprecating laugh. Maybe he should just take the bottle. "Apparently our row or whatever you want to call it, is painfully obvious. You and I, I mean. Not Kyuhyun and I. He was just trying to get me to tell him how and why I pissed you off. He was worried about you. I was too embarrassed to mention anything at first, so he had to resort to extreme measures. And. Yep."

"Me?" It's quite funny how surprised Yunho is. He's genuinely taken aback. "Kyuhyun… Was. Worried about me?"

"Yes," Changmin affirms. The alcohol is finally hitting him. His tongue feels looser. The words come out more easily. "He was sure I was in the wrong. He was right. Did I mention that I'm sorry? You've got lovely eyelashes."

"Right," Yunho says. Changmin reaches for the bottle, which is half-empty now. He's got another shot down his throat -apples!- and then Yunho takes his glass away.

"Hey," Changmin protests, and stares at his glass dangling from Yunho's fingers. It's empty. He'd thought there was half a shot left.

"Right," Yunho says again, and he takes the bottle away, too. Now he's got an arm around Changmin's back and somehow Changmin's leaning against him. 

Changmin pats at Yunho's hair. "You've got really nice hair. I’m glad you’re okay being friends with me. I suck."

"I'm guessing that's four shots on an empty stomach, huh?" Yunho says, and sighs. "I thought you could hold your alcohol."

Changmin counts on his fingers, and ends at five. He says honestly, "I stole Kyuhyun's vodka earlier, and drank it in the shower. While I was showering. I don't like confrontation."

Yunho's silent. Changmin turns to look at him. "Did you want some too?"

"Did I," Yunho echoes. "Er. No. Come on. Let's continue this conversation out of the cold."

 

--

 

The warmth of the kitchen makes Changmin sober up, a little. "Sorry."

"That's really our favourite word of the night, huh?" Yunho looks down along his nose at Changmin, but his tone, like his smile, is light. 

"Er, yes, sorry, I mean," Changmin gives himself a full-bodied shake, and gives up, reaching for the soju bottle that Yunho's still holding. Changmin's certain there's still some left. 

Yunho smacks his fingers away. "I think that's enough for you tonight."

He goes over to the bread box and comes back with a few slices of the bread that Changmin's sliced for the team in the morning. "Eat. You need to soak up that alcohol."

"What if I don't w-" Changmin starts, and shrinks back at the glare Yunho's levelling at him.

He eats.

They drift along without conversation for a while, side by side at the counter, the silence between them markedly warmer than it has been in days.

"So you forgive me?" Changmin asks, after he's done with the bread. The alcoholic haze has all but faded. It’s a bit of a pity. The anxiety and fresh jitters and mutant caterpillars are a vague hum in the pit of his stomach. 

Yunho looks at him. He's only had a shot and a little more, but his cheeks look like they're still flushed from that, and the cold. "You said it yourself. It was a misunderstanding. There's nothing to forgive. I was at fault too."

"No, no," Changmin insists. "It was me. Please. Forgive me? I want us to be friends again."

He uses the limpid stare Wendy's (he misses Wendy) taught him, making sure his eyes are wide and beseeching. 

It works better on Yunho than it does on the stylists, because Yunho laughs and softens further. He's even patting Changmin's hand!

"Yes," Yunho says, and grins. It feels like Changmin's back in proper sunshine after a long, long time trapped within a damp and dreary winter. "I forgive you."

"Oh, thank fuck," Changmin breathes, and stares down at the counter-top. The mutant caterpillars in his stomach finally subside. "You don't know how much. Thank you. I. You're amazing. I really love having you as a friend. Because you’re good, you see."

Yunho's looking at him. There’s something complicated in his face. Part amusement, part bemusement and something else. 

“I’m only human, Changmin,” he says softly. “I’m not as good as you make me out to be.”

“You are,” Changmin stares at him, confused. Is he still drunk? Why is Yunho saying this? "You make me want to be better than myself."

Yunho shakes his head, his fingers tracing endless circles around his empty shot glass. "Your efforts are all you, Changminnie. Don't put yourself down like that."

"No," Changmin scratches at his ear. Maybe he's not saying this right. "I'm not putting myself down. But that's what you do for me, you see? You inspire me to work hard."

He doesn't know how to explain this. Yunho looks nonplussed. "No, that's you, Changmin. You're the hardest worker I know."

"It's because you help. You and the rest and the crew but you make me want to take my performance seriously and I. I'm not a singer, Yunho. I like to sing, maybe inside my head and in my kitchen. You are why I push myself like this, week on week,” Changmin talks over Yunho. “All of you, but particularly you, especially you, you’re so talented and you live for the stage and you believe I can do that too and. You don’t know how much that matters.”

“But you have talent,” Yunho says slowly, like he doesn’t quite understand what Changmin is getting at. Changmin doesn’t really think he understands what he’s trying to get at too, himself. “That’s you. Give yourself the credit for that. It’s not me, Changmin. You are the one who’s pushing your own boundaries. Look how far you’ve come! Don’t take that away from yourself.”

“No, you don’t get it. Yes, I put in that effort, and I practise and practise and practise because I’m not as gifted as all of you, but it’s because of you, you see. You’re good. I don’t mean just a good singer or dancer or- you’re you. You’re good,” Changmin says, desperate to make Yunho understand. 

There’s a part of him that knows he’s all but shouting at Yunho but he can’t quite bring himself to care. He stabs a finger at Yunho and enunciates, “You’re good precisely because of how human you are. You push me by just being you. You’re an inspiration to me with how hard you work and how you are so focused in your practice and how you just throw yourself into doing your best and you make me want to be better and-”

“Okay,” Yunho soothes, laughing slightly. He’s patting Changmin’s hands again, which Changmin realises he’s using to jab at Yunho like, well, a lunatic. “Okay. Yes. Thank you. Yes. I shan't deny myself in front of you.”

You don’t understand what I’m trying to say but you are good,” Changmin growls in frustrated despair, and sits back to fold his arms across his chest.

Somehow that sets Yunho off again, and he laughs so hard his shoulders shake and he’s got both his hands cupped over his face, and he’s not stopping.

He’s beautiful and Changmin loves this man.

It's a fact of life. It's also a fact that doesn’t take his indignation away.

“Yes,” Changmin says crossly, “laugh. I’m speaking the truth and I don’t mind if you’re laughing at me.”

That sobers Yunho up in a hurry. “I’m not laughing at you, Changminnie. I promise.”

“It’s okay. I don’t mind.” Chamgmin really doesn’t. He’s still got residual adrenaline, but. There’s a soft golden glow spreading through him despite his frustration at his inability to tell Yunho how much their friendship means to him. 

Yunho hasn’t called him ‘Changminnie’ in a while and now he’s done that multiple times tonight. Yunho can laugh at him all he wants. He can laugh at Changmin until they’re old and grey, just as long as he’s across him, as Changmin’s friend, laughing at Changmin. 

“I really don’t,” Changmin insists.

The grin Yunho aims at him is small, crooked and impossibly real. 

Yunho sighs, and shakes his head. “It’s just funny, because that’s one of the things I admire about you. Your focus. And how hard you work. You should see yourself when you sing. When you cook. I just found it funny that you’re telling me you respect me for qualities that I feel like I’m learning from you. Be kinder to yourself.”

“Oh.” Changmin doesn’t know what to say. He looks at Yunho, whose face is just…

Changmin looks away despite himself. He looks down at his hands. He looks at the counter-top. “I. Thanks? Thanks. I. Er. So. Friends? Right? I’m really sorry. And thank you.”

“Stop apologising.” Yunho’s still smiling at him. The curve of his lips is rueful. “I told you. You’re forgiven, friend.”

Changmin looks down, and reaches out. He taps lightly at Yunho’s knee. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” Now Yunho’s beaming at him again whilst ruffling Changmin’s hair. It’s sunshine. He’s sunshine. 

Looking at him, Changmin feels compelled to say, “You should win Sing! Idol. You deserve it.”

It pulls another laugh out of Yunho. “Why? It can be any of us. If you want to talk about hard work, it should be you.”

“No,” Changmin decides. “I know I can get intense and dive into something headlong and- yeah, I like singing. Like I said, it’s not so bad when there’s people helping you and teaching you and everyone wants you to do your best.”

“But you,” he pokes a finger into Yunho’s knee, and smiles back at that grinning, handsome face. “You’re polished. You have talent, and hard work, and an amazing foundation, and you’re not afraid to push yourself. You love it. You love the stage. You love performing. You’re the all-rounded package. You should win. You will win.”

“Sure,” Yunho says. He ruffles Changmin’s hair again. “Because Changminnie says so.”

 

--

 

They hunker down to practice and prepare for the Role Reversal challenge after that tumultuous night. Perhaps it was only tumultuous for him; Changmin feels like he staggered off of a really long roller-coaster ride.

Because the producers said they could harness the judges to help shape their performances, and because of the theme of the challenge, Changmin goes to Jaewon and asks for help. 

It prompts a mischievous glint in Jaewon’s eyes, and towards the end of the first week of prep, he’s more than put Changmin through the wringer. 

Jihwan’s enjoying it, of course. He films Changmin’s daily torture, and he’s taken to using body camera gear because half the time he’s giggling silently like a maniac as Jaewon puts Changmin through his paces. 

“I. Can’t. Anymore,” Changmin ekes out. He’s sprawled spread-eagle on the floor of one of the practice rooms and he’s so tired that he can’t feel his legs. He had thought Hyukjae was a taskmaster during the Dance challenge week, but Jaewon is another level altogether. 

He’s also extremely unsympathetic. “Get up. Take a drink and start from the top.”

“Five- minutes,” Changmin gasps. Jihwan is hovering, and zooming for a close up from the underside of Changmin’s chin and likely he -and the nation if the editor chooses to use this footage- will be able to look up Changmin’s nostrils.

“You get three,” Jaewon’s got his arms akimbo by his hips. “You roll your hips like an ajumma with too much arm strength marinating kimchi. No finesse. Up!”

 

--

 

The atmosphere around the Sing! Idol mansion is warmer than it has been in the past few weeks. 

Amber doesn’t say anything, but she does hug Changmin very hard, and then Yunho. 

The four of them haven’t been explicitly forbidden from sharing details of their practice and song choices with each other. But the crew has been hovering and Changmin’s been reminded more than once that ‘they shouldn’t allow each other to influence their performances”. 

Kyuhyun keeps secreting himself off somewhere but Changmin has an inkling he’s doing something vaguely shocking, because he keeps humming snatches of a melody that sounds too teenybopper for his usual tastes. 

Amber’s performing something she’s composed, and she informs them with a grin, “I’m gonna have dancers and do something really shocking.” 

Yunho seems like he’s doing a dance performance too, but he keeps dancing Michael Jackson so deliberately and overtly in front of them that Changmin tells him, “the more you do this, the more we get that you’re not going to perform Michael Jackson for Role Reversal.”

“Do you?” Yunho says, his feet in the midst of performing the choreography from Billie Jean.

They’re both hamming it up for the cameras, because their cameramen are both there and hard at work.

“Yes,” Changmin points out. “That’s hardly a role reversal for you, isn’t it? You’re perfectly brilliant at his dances.”

“Flatterer,” Yunho laughs, and drags Changmin over so he can teach him the basics of the moonwalk. 

 

--

 

“I miss the others,” Amber says one night, when it’s the four of them around the dining table. Changmin had cooked a simple spaghetti aglio olio, and whipped up a fast pumpkin pudding for dessert. 

It’s not hard to make dinner, when it’s just the four of them.

They’re all silent at her admission. Yunho reaches over, and ruffles her hair very gently.

Changmin looks down at his hands. At least they’ve never been barred from texting, although there is a list of topics the producers have warned repeatedly to avoid. Spoilers and all. 

He still gets to talk to Wendy everyday, or almost everyday. She’s regaling him tales about her work over Kakao, and how some talent scouts have approached her after one of the jazz jam nights that Taeyeon scored her at the latter’s pub. 

Speak of the devil. Yunho, at that exact moment, murmurs, “does anyone else miss Taeyeon scolding them?”

Changmin chokes on his own saliva. Kyuhyun helpfully thumps him very hard, on his back. It does absolutely nothing to stop Changmin from coughing half a lung up.

When he surfaces, Amber and Yunho are looking at him, too. Yunho’s got a glass of water ready for him, and Changmin downs about half before he realises abruptly that it’s Yunho’s drinking glass he’s holding. 

“No, I just,” Changmin fumbles. “I was thinking about her, too. I miss her.”

They all make noises of understanding, and silence drifts in.

 

--

 

Recording day comes too soon, two weeks having sped by in a blur of practice laughter practice and more practice.

Changmin’s backstage, and they’re all sequestered with their individual stylists, because there’s only four of them.

He’s got Yoonju for this round, and she’s gone and designed herself into her idea of designer heaven. Changmin doesn’t even know what she’s made his stage outfit of. 

“I look like a gigolo,” Changmin says, staring into the mirror. It’s the final fitting and he’s due on stage in fifteen minutes. If he squints, he can almost believe he’s back in the preparations for Episode Three, except he’s not slouching. Yoonju will probably stab him in between the ribs if he dares.

Aside from that, it's also hard to slouch when he doesn’t know what he should hide first.

Everything is all vaguely pornographic. He tugs a little at the sides of his shirt. “My mother will be proud of her prophetic skills. Oh, God. My mother. She’ll kill me.”

Don’t panic, he tells himself inside the safety of his head. He can’t quite bring himself to meet his reflection’s eyes. The top is very… filmy.  There are buttons. Small buttons.

Don’t panic, he repeats to himself. It’s just for a performance. One performance. He's done this before. He can do it again.

Yoonju rolls her eyes, and jabs an elbow into Changmin’s spine, right at the small of his back. “You can’t blame me for this. This is all you. You want to be a stripper, you get to dress like a stripper.”

“I’m not a stripper!” Changmin squawks defensively, and tugs ineffectually again at his lapels. “Jaewon suggested that song. He said it would be sexy. I need to do a Reversal!”

That gets a peal of derisive laughter from Yoonju. “You took suggestions from a man who jumped onto a table and humped the air in a victory dance because Yunho won the Pay It Forward challenge. Didn’t the producers receive a warning letter from the Korea Communications Commission for that? Stop pulling at your top. You’re ruining the lines!” 

“Why is everything all so… see-through?” Changmin despairs, and pulls at his trousers instead. They feel like they’re cutting off his circulation.

He takes a deep breath and marshals himself.

It’s just for a performance. He wants to do his best. He needs to do his best. 

Yoonju slaps his hands away. “I told you. Stripper song, stripper clothes. Stop that before I tie your hands up and shove you on stage like that and we get another censors’ complaint slapped onto us.”

“Nnngh,” Changmin says, but Yoonju’s saved by a commotion at the door, which turns out to the producers. 

“Two minutes,” Youngmin barks, barely glancing at Changmin. “Go go go, why are you still dithering here?”

Changmin forces himself to meet his own eyes in the mirror. Don’t panic. It’s just one performance.

His reflection is wide-eyed and looks permanently startled. He’s got his lips pressed into a thin line. There’s nothing to hide behind, because Yoonju and the hairstylist have got his hair brushed back. He can see the mottling of red across his ears, twin beacons where the makeup artists can’t work their magic.

Changmin gives up. He goes out, and into the hallways, flanked by Jihwan, and spots the others just as they spot him in return. 

Don’t panic, he cautions himself again. One performance. Three hours of recording time.

They all look good, but faced with him, the other three offer up very different reactions indeed.

Yunho doesn’t do anything, save for a slight widening of his eyes, and he’s already striding over to clap a hand on Changmin’s shoulder, going, “good luck, Changminnie! You’ve got this.” 

He is, incongruously enough, in a simple white shirt and black trousers and a skinny black tie paired with military-esque boots. They've got sparklies as their shoelaces.

Amber just whistles, long and low, and looks Changmin up. And down. And up again. She circles behind him, and Changmin can practically feel her doing the same, but to his back.

Kyuhyun, coiffed and spiffy with pink hair, of all things, barely looks at him before slapping a hand over his eyes, whining, “shit, mate, did you have to? I think you wear more coming out of the shower. I did not need to see so much of you.”

Changmin opens his mouth, and jumps because there’s a pinch to his bum and he looks behind, “Amber!”

His voice is perhaps at a note he’s only achieved on stage a couple of times. 

“What?” She says, shrugging, and leers. She’s looking beautiful and urban-chic with her hair spiked and in a loose white sleeveless top accentuated with tantalising glimpses of black by her side, and ripped jeans. “Your butt was begging me to do that. Is this thing painted on?” 

“No, why did you have to say that out loud?” Kyuhyun whines, moving his hands to clap them over his ears instead. 

Changmin’s face is permanently on fire. But he can’t panic. It’s only for one performance. 

He meets Yunho’s laughing gaze, and mouths, Yunho fighting!

 

--

 

They perform their individual sets. 

When Changmin first comes out on stage, the screams are so loud and shrill that it is all he can do to remember himself, and Jaewon’s instructions, and not wince at the cacophony.

He stands straight, and keeps his chest out and makes a conscious effort not to round his shoulders. 

It’s only for one performance.

He keeps his breathing slow, and even, and goes over the lyrics and the choreography in his head one final time, even as the studio lights dim and the stage lights come up. 

The headset mic is an unfamiliar line of weight against his left ear and cheek. He mustn't panic.

He’s losing feeling in his thighs from the too-tight trousers.

Inhale. Don’t. Exhale. Panic. Inhale.

Don’t panic. 

The noise is dwarfed when the opening bars of his song choice plays.

“In my dark room,” Changmin starts, and lets go of himself to move, to roll, to remember and be the moves he’s done again and again, again and again while watching himself in the practice room mirror, while watching Jaewon, while watching the playback videos, while watching himself and Jaewon do the moves in tandem over and over.

Things are a blur, and it’s muscle memory, even as he sings and makes sure it’s the correct steps, the correct melody, the correct turn and the correct touches, and the correct unbuttoning and untucking of his shirt; made easy by the deliberately small (but strong) buttons Yoonju’s hand sewn into filmy black.

It’s a surprise even to himself, when he finishes it with zero mistakes and it is almost just as he practiced. Almost. There’s a bit more noise than Jaewon’s calm instructions, oh-

The crowd roars.

He wins the challenge. 


--

 

어두운 내 방안엔 

도저히 감출 수 없는 두 떨리는 숨소리들뿐 

감출 수 없는 설렘 

좀 어색해진 듯 그게 흠 이미 난 굳어버린 듯

-- HEAVEN’S DAY.

Chapter Text

 

Yunho's thankful he went on stage before Changmin did.

It's dark and cramped in the wings. Given how his cameraman Myunghwan is hardly a stick, he's relegated to the hallway outside. Only Amber's here, at stage left with him. Kyuhyun's... somewhere.

Yunho folds his arms across his chest and sinks into himself to properly watch, as Changmin's performance plays itself out.

He’s thankful. He's glad. He doesn't quite think he can control his face at what's being illuminated under the dimmed staged lights now.

The lights themselves are low and flirty, swooping bright arcs and playing shadows over the smoke that's billowing out, and creeping into the wings.

Changmin moves like liquid sex on stage. 

It’s effort, it’s hard work, it’s his frankly frightening diligence, and it’s beautiful. There's no other way to describe it.

Yunho is already very aware of how extraordinary Changmin's voice is. With this, though. He’s something else.

The way Changmin kept secreting himself away with Jaewon in the past fortnight did give the three of them some inkling that Changmin might do a dance performance, especially given how he’s not Team Jaewon in the first place, so that frequent contact was suspicious. But Changmin’s been completely mum about his song choice, only shaking his head and smiling whenever they asked him about his preparations. 

Now, looking at him moving and moving under the light, Yunho understands.

It's hard to explain. Changmin probably was nervous. Is nervous. 

Changmin’s anxiety is barely noticeable these days, unless one know where to look for it. A few times, when the instrumental bridges occur; he jerks, just a little twitch that’s barely noticeable between the lines. His hands clench into fists, only for his fingers to uncurl when it’s time for him to sing and perform the next move in the choreography. It’s not visible unless one's looking for it. 

Yunho can't quite believe that this is the same man who went down on his knees in apology and flailed awkwardly around in the snow barely two weeks ago. 

But then again, Changmin's always been surprising. 

Next to him, Amber chortles. She pats his hand. "He's finishing up. Can you work on looking less like you've swallowed your tongue?"

Without looking at her, Yunho reaches out, and gives her a pointed pinch on the underside of her arm. She only cackles harder.

 

--

 

Kyuhyun is the one who is eliminated. 

Then again, it’s only because Yunho nailed his sultry rendition of the popular hit Gashina, with glitter and fire and roses and undulating around on stage and everything; and Amber one-ups him by tying a male dancer to a chair while on stage and sticking her tongue down the throat of another. On national television.

And then there was Changmin, who did nearly five minutes of hip-thrusting and bedroom eyes and come hither glances while feeling up his own abs and took his shirt off and put it back on again. Also on national television.

The result is that Kyuhyun’s version of an upbeat pop song, originally performed by a group of prepubescent girls, pales in comparison- though not for lack of trying.

"Yeah," Kyuhyun shrugs, when the cameras are off and the audience has been shuffled out to head home in orderly lines. "Well. I can't even be mad at myself for losing, because you're all nuts."

"It just goes to show that it’s true," he continues, where they're all backstage and the producers are giving them a little time on their own before hustling Kyuhyun off to his exit interview. "Sex sells."

Yunho offers him an amused grin while Amber smirks, but Changmin's sputtering. "W-what?"

He's also in a large bathrobe that his cameraman Jihwan threw at his head, after he had enough of filming Changmin shrinking and cowering. It's rendering all the footage unusable because it wasn't even funny after a couple of shots, just awkward. 

Only Amber had laughed, and went over to jam her fingers against Changmin's ribs.

Kyuhyun's pointing his finger at Yunho now, so Yunho tunes back into the conversation. 

"Sex sells," Kyuhyun enunciates, his finger almost on Yunho's nose. Yunho snaps his teeth playfully at the appendage, and laughs for real when Kyuhyun reels back with very real terror in his face.

"Sex sells,"  Kyuhyun sniffs and marshals himself by jabbing his finger at Amber instead. Amber sticks her tongue out at him.

Finally his finger lands in the direction of Changmin, who's still cringing. "Sex definitely sells."

“That wasn’t-” Changmin’s still trying to protest, so Yunho takes pity on him and goes over.

“Yes, we know, Changminnie,” he soothes, patting a hand against Changmin’s back, and flags down a passing staff member. “Why don’t you go change out of your stage outfit first-”

“Not much of an outfit,” Kyuhyun cracks, but Yunho darts him a look. The younger man puts both hands up, and opens his mouth.

Whatever quip Kyuhyun's got has to wait. He's instead grabbed by Youngjin, who barks, “you! Exit interview, now! Stop faffing around, you people will still have your chance to say your goodbyes later!” 

 

--

 

They do. There are hugs and tears and Yunho is one of the many who end up taking a video of Changmin and Kyuhyun hugging a little too long. Their embrace, if it can be called that -Changmin’s getting snot into Kyuhyun’s hair, whilst Kyuhyun’s trying to shove at him- continues at the sound of Kyuhyun’s vehement protestations: “Chef Shim, stop it, stop pawing at me, you’re going to get me beaten up!” 

He refuses to elaborate on his claim, even when he repeats it too often and too loudly and people start asking questions. 

Even Yunho asks him about it, curious despite himself. 

Yunho doesn’t know what he was expecting. Certainly not a straight answer, because it’s Kyuhyun. But it’s definitely not what happens:

He’s instead grabbed by Kyuhyun, who tries for a headlock, and then shifts his hands very correctly to Yunho’s shoulders after Yunho raises both eyebrows at him. “I’ll miss you too, my dancing king, but I won’t miss how you keep making us practice practice practice.” 

Someone -probably the crew- breaks out the alcohol when they’re back at the Sing! Idol mansion to pack. They’d finished Kyuhyun’s white wine weeks ago, but someone -definitely the crew- has got a new cask of white, full of Chilean and French labels. 

Kyuhyun, who’s been dry-eyed up till now, definitely gets a bit teary over that. 

 

--

 

Escaping the drinks session midway, Yunho sends perfunctory texts to both Hyukjae and Hojoon, to very different replies.

His own message is short, and simple, and to the point. I’m still in Sing! Idol. Heading back home now instead of bunking at the show's housing.

Top three then? I know, I know, no spoilers. But still! You’re going to win this unless you feel like giving way to your favourite chef. Lol I kid! Yunho fighting! Make our academy proud! See you in a couple of days?  Hyukjae responds, his excitement manifesting the form of a few GIFs and too many stickers. One recurring one he keeps sending is a GIF of a smiling Changmin, looking impossibly handsome during the Rap vs Musical episode. 

Hojoon, however, is his usual laconic self. Yunho knows he owes his best friend a drink and then some. It’s been nearly six months since they’ve been able to sit down and properly hang out, and talk. Still? You’re going to win it. When do you have to go back? Let’s go have barbecue in the meantime.

It feels odd, to pack up and clean out the room that has been his, for so many months. 

He can't be bothered to fold up his clothes- why did he bring so many?- and instead rolls them into tubes, and chucks them into his bags. It seems like only minutes when he’s summoned by the executive producers for a final round of briefings, and Yunho goes.

The three of them are being given final instructions about the structure of the semi-final and finale, which will occur across a couple of days. A day for preparations and final rehearsals; and a day for the actual recording and live telecast of the final two rounds, when they congregate again.

Any special requests for set and blocking, they’re being told, can be made between themselves and the producers during the next fortnight.

There’s last minute nagging on their non-disclosure agreements, and scattered laughter when Amber mugs for the camera and mouths along to Youngjin’s stern spiel. 

Soyoung threatens to come after them if they insofar as breathe a word to the outside world the identities of who’s left in the game. The crew will release the news in their own time, once the Role Reversal episode is aired.

At that, their cameramen jostle to shoot small reaction shots, meant for social teasers and whatnot.

Yunho doesn’t get to chat properly with Changmin. They’re all too busy lugging suitcases and making their rounds, yelling out goodbyes interspersed between Youngmin’s reminders to please remember to prepare their song choices, and to keep in contact.

Instead he tries for a wave across the crowded foyer, where it seems like everyone’s chattering and shouting at everyone else.

He’s heartened when Changmin drops his own suitcases to wave back, with both hands. 

 

--

 

Yunho comes home to his flat with his bags in tow, and tosses them into his living room.

There’s the smell of an unaired flat in his nose, musty and ticklish. His senses tell him he should at least open the windows, and maybe have a go with the vacuum cleaner, but he’s also been fed half a bottle of white wine by the Sing! Idol crew and that’s half a bottle too many.

“I’ll clean in an hour,” Yunho promises his flat, out loud. He staggers through his living room for a little lie-in on the sofa. It’s always been sinfully comfortable, ever since he splurged a few months' worth of his salary to get it, four years ago.

Hojoon has once spent a year on this sofa, and swears by it. 

“Your sofa, man,” he had said, when he finally managed to buy his own flat, and Yunho had showed up with a case of beer (for Hojoon), and a hoppy (for himself). “It’s magical. Evil. It just sucks you in.” 

“I’ll clean tomorrow,” he promises the sofa pillows, and falls asleep.

 

--

 

He wakes up with the sun shining in his face, and the scent of breakfast in his nostrils. 

“Get up, darling,” his mother scolds. “Come eat before it gets cold.”

“I’m up,” Yunho says accordingly, and he sits himself up on the sofa, flicking the blanket off of him.

Habits ingrained by the military -he had enlisted early so that he, Hyukjae and Taemin could stagger their national service periods and thus not bring too much disruption to the teaching schedule over at the academy- means he’s standing and folding said blanket into a neat square, feet tucked into cashmere slippers, before he realises there’s something wrong with this picture.

He looks up and around, trying to straighten his sleep-mussed hair in vain. 

Yes. He’s in Seoul. He’s in his flat. 

But he's just heard his mother.

“Mum?” He exclaims more than asks, dropping the blanket and craning his neck. It crumples down on the floor by the sofa. 

Yunho takes two steps and rubs his eyes. 

His mother is standing there like it’s her kitchen down in Gwangju, instead of his own up here in Seoul. She’s got breakfast laid out on the big dining table; the one that Yunho only really uses if she comes up to visit him, and insists on cooking. 

When she’s not around, he eats in this little folding table nook he’s got in the kitchen. Or whilst perched on the sofa, a habit his mother used to lament when he was a teenager. 

What she doesn’t know now doesn’t hurt her.

“Mum,” he says again, and blinks at her. “How did you…? You shouldn’t have. I only texted you last night that I’ll be back just so you won’t rush up from Gwangju to clean on the weekend again. Did you- you didn't drive, did you. Did you take the train?”

Folding her arms, his mother smiles at him and says, in deft and blatant avoidance of his question, “happy birthday in advance, darling. I came in this morning and there was even dust in the sink. I don’t know how you do it. Are the slippers comfortable?”

“They’re lovely, thank you,” Yunho says automatically.

Oh. He had forgotten that it’ll be his birthday in a couple of days.

He blinks, and looks down. Wiggles his toes. “But I don’t wear house slippers at home, Mum. Even if they're comfortable.”

“Now you do. It’s better than tearing around with your shoes on like a barbarian,” his mother dismisses. She’s untying her apron, and seating herself at the right of the table, where she’s laid out a place and portion for herself too. “Now come eat your birthday breakfast, darling, before it all gets cold.”

“Mum, it's not even today, you didn’t have to,” Yunho starts, and stops.

Her smile only widens. She ladles a bowl of miyeok guk, and sets it at the head of the table. She always sets his place at the head of the table, when she comes up to his flat and makes her inspections. “Must we have this conversation every time? I'll make this again, and a feast for you on the actual day. Ring Hojoon and the others to come eat dinner then.” 

“Mum,” Yunho says again, and gives up. “It smells delicious.”

She beams at him.

 

--

 

They fight over who will clean the flat after breakfast, and as usual, Yunho loses.

His mother shoves him out the door (“Go to your academy and your students, darling, and stop standing around the flat like a big lug!”) and then proceeds to become a whirlwind of household cleansing efficiency.

He goes, scratching his head. At least Hyukjae and Taemin appreciate his efforts.

And they do, welcoming him back with shoulder hugs and slaps on the back.

Yunho finds himself back at work, like Sing! Idol never took him away for months.

On the actual day of his birthday, Hyukjae buys him a strawberry cake for lunch and takes joy in smashing it very thoroughly into his face and hair. Taemin films the whole thing while laughing himself sick. 

He throws himself back into his usual classes. Between that, and hunkering down in his office to sort and prepare his performances for the semi-final, he’s swamped. He spends his days ducking his head in frequent thanks during teaching, as his regular students regale him with tales of them watching him on television; and staggers home too late at night after repeated practice. 

The academy sees a slight spike in enrollments, especially in the beginner classes for adults. It's apparent that the newcomers are not really interested in dance when they spend too long at the barre giggling at Yunho's reflection, and too little on actually trying to dance. 

It makes some of their regulars scowl, and attempt to close ranks about Yunho, which is drama they really don't need. 

"Drama?" Hyukjae says, gleeful. "What drama! Don't you dare stop this. This is the most fun I've had all year. Although... Teaching your favourite chef comes a close second."

He bears it with as much grace as he can afford, but by the end of Day Three, he can't resist expounding on the benefits and qualities of dance to the new folks, eager to make them see.

With a smile on his face, of course. He's not a monster.

Taemin laughs at him, after. "You're the best, bro, but you know they're not listening to you speak when they stare at you like that, right?"

"They're quite focused," Yunho argues.

Taemin snorts. "Yeah, but not on your words. "

 

--

 

His mother has also brought ingredients and pre-made banchan up to Seoul with her, and it appears she’s staying for quite a while this time round, instead of her usual fuss-and-go that takes up a weekend at most.

Four days thus pass. That fourth night, she looks at him and goes mildly while they watch the home shopping channel together, “darling, just because I’m here doesn’t mean you don’t sort out your own groceries, you know. You make me worry about you.”

“You’ve got my fridge stuffed,” Yunho protests, but he allows her to drag him the next morning to the markets in Jayang-dong, which is a little out of his usual neighbourhood.

“The things here are fresher than that ridiculous hypermart you have around the corner,” his mother is saying, as she shakes out her eco-bag. “Seoul prices are mad. The amount you young people pay for vegetables! No wonder everyone is eating their lives away at those convenience stores.”

“I can afford vegetables,” Yunho tries, mild enough.

His mother merely continues on her merry way, “Jihye found this place for me. She checked on her phone. This is where all the good meat gets sold, darling, you should come here in the future. The ahjussi-deul here know their meat, and their morals.”

“Mum,” he says helplessly, something he does too often these days. 

Yunho dogs her steps into a little nook by the mouth of the market, which widens into the meat section where all the butchers are. She’s showing him the Maps function on her phone, where his little sister had, bless her detailed heart, marked out the walking route beforehand.

They turn a corner and he comes face-to-face with Changmin.

He’s so surprised at the sight that he stops, and stares. 

It’s Changmin. Yunho had resigned himself to not seeing Changmin until they’re back at Sing! Idol. 

Sure, he’s excited about the semi-finals, and how his efforts are paying off, but more and more, the excitement that fills him whenever he thinks about Sing! Idol is because there’s also Changmin. 

It’s a dangerous feeling.

Yunho had a plan. It was simple, and straightforward, and easy to work towards. He just needs to win Sing! Idol, or do his damnednest trying. 

Nothing’s straightforward now, because nothing about Changmin or his feelings about Changmin is straightforward. 

Nothing’s been straightforward since November, when Yunho had tried to offer care but was given comfort in return. When Changmin, who should have been hurting and anxious and upset, took a look at him and shed his hoodie immediately. Just because Yunho was stupid enough to go out into the November chill without a windbreaker. 

A part of Yunho is happy for this break.

He has no illusions about his feelings for Changmin. At the same time, they were all kept in a very insular environment for months and months with no one but stress and a dwindling number of very competitive personalities for company. 

It doesn’t matter that everyone’s mostly nice and Yunho’s always been near the top of the pecking order. A pressure cooker is a pressure cooker. 

Yunho knows he loves Changmin. He’s just not sure if that love will last once they’re back in the real world.

It doesn’t really matter anyway. Most of the time Changmin looks like he can barely bear to spend time in Yunho’s presence. Notwithstanding all that kneeling around in the snow and talk about friendship two weeks ago, which had been equal parts baffling and flattering.

But there he is.

There he is, a couple of metres away and right at the storefront of a meat shop, facing Yunho. In this market.

Seoul’s large enough. What are the odds? Changmin’s turning back to the butcher. There’s a brown sack in his hands. Has he bought meat? Is he going to cook a meat dish for himself? It looks too small a portion -only one sack!- for him to be buying it for his work. Is he here with company? 

Changmin hasn’t seen him yet. 

“Yunho?” His mother finally realises she’s lost her faithful shadow, and comes back to stand next to him. Her eco-bag is hanging from the crook of her arm. It’s pure muscle memory and his autonomic nervous system that makes Yunho reach out for it, to sling it over his shoulder. 

It’s already got a heft to it. She’s bought persimmons and he didn't even realise. 

His mother lets him, without fuss, but her tone is questioning. “What is it, darling?”

It means she’s got a prime seat in the peanut gallery as Changmin takes two steps away from the butcher’s and looks up, and at Yunho. 

It means she has a very clear view of Changmin walking forward another two steps and finally realising who he’s making eye contact with. He does that in an almost comical double take.

Yunho has half a mind to look away, to check if there are cameras bobbing about them.

It means she’s taking it all in, as Yunho lifts his other hand in a wave, and Changmin turns inexplicably yet hilariously red. 

They’re but a step away from each other. 

Yunho squashes any and all odd whisperings in his heart at the sight of Changmin’s valiant attempt at impersonating a tomato. Changmin’s a shy boy. He’s just surprised. His blush doesn’t mean anything. 

Right. Yunho opens his mouth to speak, but Changmin beats him to it.

“It’s not two weeks yet, right?” Changmin blurts, and goes white.

Yunho can’t help it. He doubles over in laughter, and by the time he straightens, Changmin’s flushed again.

“Hi,” he manages, around a chortle.

“I didn’t mean-” Changmin shakes his head, and pauses. His complexion is back to his usual tan, although his ears are still pink. “I mean. Hi! What are you doing here?”

“I’m here for…” Yunho starts, and trails off, as he’s again made aware of the weight at the crook of his arm. Tamping down a sense of foreboding, he pastes a smile onto his face, and turns slightly. That keeps Changmin still very much in his line of sight, but now he can check his periphery, too. 

His mother beams at him. He can see all of her teeth. 

“Right,” Yunho says, and offers his own version of her grin at Changmin. “Just here for a grocery run! Buying meat and all! You?”

“I, yes, well,” Changmin stammers, waving the brown sack. “Same! I live down the street. Do you- we never talked about this- if you don’t want to say it, it’s absolutely fine- Is this your neighbourhood, too?”

“Oh, no,” Yunho hastens to reassure, because Changmin’s clutching at the sack like it’s a lifeline and Yunho’s a little concerned at how his knuckles are practically white with the strain, “er, no, don’t… worry? I don’t live here. I’m in Seocho-dong-”

“I’m not worried,” Changmin talks over him. Somehow, he looks upset.

“Darling,” His mother interrupts. She’s got a good grip around his arm. “Aren’t you going to introduce your poor neglected mother to your friend?”

The thing is, even though he doesn’t see Jihye often, they keep in frequent, almost daily contact via social media, and messenger apps. Jihye’s grown a habit of sending Yunho weekly videos of their mother and her fiancé huddled on the family home sofa and intently watching Sing! Idol.

In her videos, Seokhee is a relaxed audience, dutifully cheering whenever his future brother-in-law appears on screen.

(He still isn’t worthy of Yunho’s baby sister. No one is.)

His mother, on the other hand, tends to sit ramrod straight, with an expression on her face that Yunho knows is also quite at home on his own face; when he’s too engrossed in choreographing, or after two hours of dance practice, when he’s properly in the zone. She knows all the names of the Sing! Idol contestants. Jihye has even recorded her dissecting Chanyeol’s chances, and ranking his abilities in a sweet but brutally frank analysis against the rest of them, way back when.

The thing is. 

The thing is, Yunho’s mother knows exactly who Changmin is. There was that disastrous phone call Yunho had with her, where Changmin overheard him and then came up with a misunderstanding so out there that even now, Yunho feels himself cringing whenever he thinks about that.

He tries not to think about it. Except maybe Changmin’s mad apology in the snow. That was… nice. Still baffling and unnecessary, but nice. 

The thing is, his mother probably knows Changmin better than Yunho does, given how there are some of Changmin’s interviews and behind-the-scenes segments and social media teasers that Yunho hasn’t yet watched. His mother watches everything on Sing! Idol. 

Yunho knows it. His mother knows it. He doesn’t doubt that she knows he knows, too. 

It just makes her request for a proper introduction more unnerving. There’s something going on in that head of hers, judging by the widening grin on her face. 

Yunho clears his throat, but Changmin beats him to it again.

He flicks a quick glance at Yunho, and performs a very correct ninety-degree bow from the waist. Yunho’s mother coos at the sight of him. 

“Mrs Jung, my name is Changmin. It’s very nice to meet you,” he says, voice soft and formal. But Yunho’s mother lets go of Yunho, and latches on Changmin before they both can blink.

“No, no, we can’t have that,” she is saying, while Yunho is trying to recover his bearings. 

She’s fluttering her lashes at Changmin, and dimpling at him, while Changmin looks torn between being frozen and hopelessly charmed. 

His mother -is she touching Changmin?- leans in and says sunnily, “that’s Auntie to you, dear.”

Now she’s winding her arm around the crook of Changmin’s elbow instead, and smiling up at him, while Yunho’s still looking for his tongue. “I love meeting my Yunho’s friends. Changmin! You are in the singing competition as well, yes? Oh, you’re tall.”

“I- Yes,” Changmin stammers, although he’s also leaning in. 

Yunho sighs, and scrubs a hand over his face. 

By the looks of it, Changmin is a goner. He’s grinning bashfully down at Yunho’s mother, a sunflower curving towards the sun. 

“Don’t do that to my friend, Mum,” he warns, but Changmin’s got stars in his eyes and he actually looks a little indignant at the stern tone Yunho’s adopted.

“Hush, darling,” Yunho’s mother flutters a hand. She hasn’t looked away from Changmin, but she’s deftly steering him -and Yunho by default- to the side off of the pavement, into a little alcove for some (relative) privacy. “I don’t know what you are talking about. Now, Changmin, dear, it is so nice to meet you. You live here too then, you said? In Seoul?”

“Oh, I. Yes,” Changmin returns. He’s bending close to Yunho’s mother. There’s a funny tug at Yunho’s heart at the sight of the two of them.

He squashes that, too.

“Oh, oh, a city boy,” his mother exclaims. She pats at Changmin’s elbow. “What a nice warm hoodie. So you went to school here, and such a famous one, too! Your parents must be very proud.”

Her comment, apropos of nothing, makes Changmin look down at himself. 

It makes Yunho look, too.

The familiar red is jarring. “Kyunghee University” shouts out at both of them, scrawled across Changmin’s chest. 

Yunho knows his own grin is wide, and just a tad too frantic. He doesn’t doubt that his mother recognises that particular hoodie. “Mum, stop scaring Changminnie.” 

It’s the wrong thing to say. 

Changmin shoots him another quick look; wide-eyed and startled. Yunho’s mother raises her eyebrows at the nickname, her own sunshine grin gleaming and at full power. 

She’s got both arms wound around Changmin’s arm now; a sweet motherly spider to Changmin’s hapless fly. 

“Am I scary?” She says, and laughs when Changmin immediately shakes his head with vehement exclamations to the contrary. She covers his hand with her own, and sighs, smiling, “dear, you’re so sweet. Such a nice polite young man! Oh, forget it! You must call me Mother.”

“Mother.” Changmin smiles back at her, helplessly captivated. 

Yunho pinches at the bridge of his nose. Friend. Changmin is his friend. He’s just calling Yunho’s mother that because he’s polite and sweet and an amazing person and doesn’t seem to, in the months Yunho’s known him, have a very good grasp on social norms. 

There would have been more of an overture from his mother towards Changmin, were it not for the fact that all three of them hear squeals in the vicinity. 

These days, they all get too easily recognised. Amber had texted him last night with her picture and signature at a barbecue restaurant per the request of its owner, who is apparently a Yunho fan.

“Are those the boys from that singing competition? Korean Star, right?”

“No, Ae-young, don’t be silly! It’s Sing! Idol-” 

“So handsome! Look at them! So tall!”

“Ah, to have one of them as my son-in-law-”

“Your daughter should be so lucky! Now, my niece, on the other hand-”

“Yes, well,” Yunho says, one hand at his mother’s elbow and coming forward with her, until he’s shoulder-to-shoulder with Changmin. 

Changmin’s back to staring at him mutely again. He doesn’t seem to have noticed the gaggle of extremely interested aunties barely five metres away and rapidly growing in number.  

Yunho just smiles hard and goes, “why don’t we walk and talk at the same time? Since we’re all appearing to be going the same way.”

“I was walking in the opposite direction,” his sweet shy friend Changmin points out. His tone is one of pure confusion. 

Probably Yunho’s mother has scrambled his brains. 

Yunho chances a glance to his other side. The culprit is pouting. 

Smiling harder, Yunho grasps Changmin gently by the cloth of his sleeve. “I meant that we are all shopping for groceries. The same way. Let’s go.” 

 

--

 

“Such a lovely, lovely boy,” His mother is still raving, half an hour after they parted ways with Changmin and finished the grocery run. They’re in the car, Yunho’s driving back to the flat to drop his mother and their supplies off, before he heads back to the academy. “So tall! So handsome! He’s got such long legs. So intelligent! And he knows how to cook!”

“Yes, yes,” Yunho says tiredly, as they come to a stop at the red light. “Changmin’s nice.”

His mother hasn’t stopped smiling, since her overly long and detailed conversation with Changmin down an alley in the market at Jayang-dong. Her grin dims a little, now. “You know I like meeting your friends, darling.” 

He slides a glance at her, from beneath his lashes. “You know a lot of my friends, Mum. You’ve never looked like you wanted to devour them, before.”

“I did not want to devour,” she begins, affronted, and pauses. “Well. Perhaps. But he is so very handsome and shy. Like a sweet little mochi. No, not little. A very tall, very shy mochi. With peach filling! That I can eat up in a mouthful.”

Mother.” He says, shocked, as she erupts into peals of laughter. 

The light turns green, and he tries his best to focus on driving and not running them into the road divider. She laughs until they turn off the highway, and sobers, a little. “Don’t think I’m not going to ask you about the hoodie, darling.”

“There’s nothing to ask about,” Yunho says as calmly as he can, flicking on his indicators to signal a turn. “I told you when I went to visit you in the last break. I was cold, and he loaned it to me.” 

“Close enough to share clothing,” she muses, clearly intent on ignoring him. “And the look on your face when you saw him! The look on his! Like something out of an MBC primetime drama!”

“Changmin was just startled, Mum. It isn’t like that. Stop it,” Yunho refutes, voice hard. He rarely speaks to her like this, and it’s usually reserved for times when his father is the topic of conversation. 

She jumps, and quietens.

The silence blooms in the car. Yunho feels like the shittiest son alive. He doesn’t know why he always does this to his mother. All he does is to take her laughter away.

“I’m sorry,” he says, as he turns into the road leading to the gated estate housing his flat. “It’s just… Changminnie- Changmin’s very shy. He isn’t very good with people, and I just. I don’t want us to scare him.”

She doesn’t respond, looking out of the window.

A moment later, her reply comes. It’s almost too quiet, “were you worried I wouldn’t approve?”

They cruise into the carpark. Yunho slides the car into his usual lot, and shifts the gear back into park mode. He pushes the ignition button, and they both listen as the engine powers down in a low rumbling purr.

He looks at her. 

“There’s nothing to approve,” Yunho says honestly. “We’re friends.” 

“But you like him,” she counters. 

There’s no point in lying to her, not when her eyes are sharp and she seems to like Changmin, too. “I do,” he admits. “But it’s not like that. We’re friends. And he’s- he’s shy.”

She hums, considering, and looks at him. “You can go after him. I know my own son’s charms very well. With that face, and that body, and your brain, you can go after him. He won’t stand a chance.”

“Mum!” He exclaims, half-laughing, half-horrified. At least she’s smiling at him, again. 

Yunho rakes a hand through his hair.

Maybe it's because he's still feeling guilty over his outburst.

Maybe it's because his mother is here, and not by his father's side, and it's been half a week since they both made any deliberate mention of him. 

Maybe it's the memory of her smiling prettily up at Changmin. And Changmin smiling back.

In any case, Yunho can't hold it back anymore.

Everything tumbles out in a rush. “That’s horrible, you make me sound like some- It isn’t like that, really. I didn’t plan for this. Changmin and I, he’s got a bit of a hero worship thing going on, and he thinks I’m so much better than I am, and that is just terrifying sometimes. The rest of the time he can barely talk to me. He’s so shy. Anyway, it doesn’t matter that he’s open to men, because there’s this competition, and I’m pretty sure there’s probably clauses against fraternisation in Sing! Idol, and we all signed contracts, and non-disclosure agreements, and.”

The words dry up. Yunho spreads his hands. He doesn’t know what else to say. 

The car cools around them.

How does he articulate to his mother -of all people!- that he’s in love with Changmin, and he’s frightened about barking up the wrong tree, because it frequently feels as though Changmin builds him up to impossible standards and Yunho’s terrified that doing anything to break that will end up with Changmin disillusioned with him? 

Yunho doesn’t even like to think about this too often, in the quiet of his own head. 

He’s been silent too long.

“I like him even more now than I did, earlier,” she muses. She’s still quiet, but at least she’s looking at him now. “I rarely see you so discomposed, darling.”

“I,” Yunho takes a deep breath, and shakes his head. 

What does he even say to that?

“Think about it,” his mother advises. She opens the car door and trots out, to fetch the groceries from around back. 

Her voice echoes at Yunho from behind, where he’s still in the driver’s seat. “Do you realise, darling? Throughout your entire spiel, you didn’t once mention that Changmin isn’t a possibility because you want to win Sing! Idol?”

Despite himself, his fingers tighten on the steering wheel.

Behind him, she’s relentless. “Once, you practically lived for the stage.” 

Wanting to win Sing! Idol to prove himself, to fling his victory in his father’s face in a fit of petty vindication, to show that he can, that he couldn’t once due only to circumstances. That he might work in performing arts, and on the sidelines of the entertainment industry, but it doesn’t mean he’s given up his passion for the stage. That he’s still not too old, too burnt out, too adult for a childhood aspiration.

All that almost feels like a fever dream from long ago. 

Yunho looks at his reflection in the rear view mirror. Meets his mother’s eyes.

“That was a long time ago,” he says slowly. “I’m happy at the academy. Sing! Idol is… I wanted to see if I could now, since I couldn’t then. And since I got in, it doesn’t make sense to do anything else but try my best.”

“Just like your father,” she murmurs fondly, before she can stop herself. 

He doesn’t answer her. He doesn’t want to. The air chills. 

“Oh, pish,” She sighs, heavy. 

“Mum,” he takes a deep breath, and smiles at her through the mirror. 

“Oh, just. Think about it,” she says again, not unkindly. “Give yourself a chance, darling. Sometimes you get so focused on your goals, you lose sight of the entire journey and the sights along the way."

 

--

 

After that particularly delightful bit of maternal psychoanalysis, his mother doesn't bring Changmin up in conversation.

Yunho's thankful. That one chat was enough. He hunkers down on his preparations for his song choices, and after some thinking, swaps out one of them entirely, to the surprise of the executive producers. But he's lucky, and there's still enough time.

Meanwhile his mother changes her phone screen's wallpaper to Episode Nine's Medley Changmin. Before, it had featured Yunho and Jihye cheek-to-cheek at a Seollal gathering a couple of years back.

Yunho only finds out when her phone buzzes, and he is ordered to check for the identity of the caller, since his mother is cooking fish and that is a delicate operation she can't walk away from.

It's Jihye, but it’s only a KakaoTalk text notification from her, and not a call. When it fades into the previews blurb at the top of his mother's phone screen, Yunho is instead confronted by a smiling Changmin, one hand clasped around his guitar and looking absolutely fantastic in denim.

He wanders back into the kitchen, where he was shooed out half an hour ago. He had been happy to work in his study on curriculum plans for his Urban Ballet (Advanced) class. 

But this. 

"Mum," he says slowly. "Mother. Why do you have Changmin as your lock-screen wallpaper?”

She doesn’t look away from the fish. She sounds breezy enough. “Oh, I’m a fan.”

“You’re a fan,” he echoes, and looks back down on her phone, now a black rectangle in his palm. Presses the button on the side, just so that it lights up again, with Changmin lit up. “You?”

“He is a lovely young man,” she says, flipping the fish. It’s a beautiful golden brown- something that Yunho knows he can never achieve. 

“Besides,” and here her tone turns slightly gleeful, like a child hugging a secret, “he said I could.”

He said you,” Yunho looks up, nonplussed. “Did this come up in conversation the day we bumped into him?”

He had texted Changmin after, to drop an apology about how his mother all but molested the other. Changmin had only responded to him with a sticker and a short effusive ‘Don’t say such things! Mother is so nice!’

Yunho didn’t quite know how to respond, so he only texted back a smiley and their conversation had tapered off, just like that. 

He misses Changmin.

It has always been a bit of a challenge talking to Changmin when they’re not face to face, and sometimes challenging still even when it’s an actual conversation happening physically in real-time.

“Oh,” his mother says now, deliberately casual. The fish is done, and she slings the wok expertly into the sink. 

Water hisses and sizzles, as she takes a scrub to the cooling cast iron. “We talk. I did ask him for permission!”

“You talk ?” Yunho most definitely does not squawk. His voice is maybe a tad too loud than usual. But he is calm. Definitely calm. “You have Changmin’s number? You’re in contact with him?

He is not jealous of his own mother. Definitely not. 

But she only met Changmin by chance a few days ago, and now they talk? Enough for her to ask permission for Changmin to use his picture for her phone’s wallpaper? And he allowed it?

Maybe that’s how his mother has kept his father docile to her for nearly thirty five years. 

Maybe he’s a little jealous.

Maybe he should text Changmin, just to ask.

“Yes, yes,” she’s done with the wok, and flits over to the stove to check on the soup. She’s still not looking at Yunho. “He sends me recipes of things I want to try. He’s so sweet.”

“He sends you recipes,” Yunho starts, and nearly chokes when she shoves a scalding spoon into his mouth, all bright and sunny, “darling, taste this for me, will you? Do we need more salt?”

 

--

 

He practices his song choices for the semi-final and finale, because it’s either that or try and pry in vain at his mother’s friendship(?) with Changmin. 

It’s not as though the song choices will stop him from thinking about Changmin, but at least it’s indirect. A man can only spend so long brooding about one subject in particular before he drives himself mad. 

Winning Sing! Idol is still Yunho’s wish, no matter how disconnected it sometimes feels now. 

More than actually winning; he just wants to see how far he can go. 

He wants to see if a childhood aspiration still has room to fit in, in his adult life. 

He doesn’t tell anyone this, except himself, in the privacy of his own head. 

Already there are entertainment agencies reaching out to him, companies Yunho has worked with before in a professional capacity, to either choreograph for and train their pop acts in some of their performances. They’re very interested in any potential plans he might have, after Sing! Idol. 

He suppresses the flare of excitement at these emails in his work inbox and probing texts in his Kakao. The only replies he offers, sent out only after he’s read through them three times to ensure they all sound correct and polite, are all variants of how he is currently still contractually bound to his appearances in Sing! Idol, thank you so much for your interest, President, perhaps we can take this discussion further after the competition ends officially?

Yunho teaches too many classes in between his calls with the producers and working on his performances for the final two challenges, including the newly formed Dancing with the Idol (Basics). It’s either that or actually be home to ask his mother when she’s heading back down to Gwangju (and to his father).

He does like having her around, even though he knows she’s playing him like a fiddle and managing him and his routine and his meals as though he were still a child. 

Once upon a time as an obstinate teenager, he would and did chafe at that. 

Now he sees her too little, to truly mind it.

 

--

 

Yunho goes to meet his friends, has gathering after gathering with one of them, a few of them, an entire group of them, because it’s either that or stare at his phone to think of something to text Changmin. 

It doesn’t help that he’s still stuck on ‘hey!’ or ‘how’s it going?’ or ‘man have you been practicing?’ for conversation starters. 

He refuses to send them because they’re all too inane and he is not in high school and thus should not be this pathetic.

 

--

 

The end of the fortnight draws nearer, and he manages to get in some much anticipated time with Hojoon, because it’s been too long since they hung out, just the two of them. 

It’s a quiet winter night. Their group of friends had a gathering earlier in the evening, belated birthday celebrations for Yunho.

As expected, there are plenty of questions about Sing! Idol and the top four, since the latest episode has just aired.

The topic of conversation veers at times, to how the others are doing, and the various updates everyone’s got to their lives. 

But it’s never interesting enough to sustain, and they keep routing back to the competition, where his friends start to dissect the chances of the other contestants. Yunho just smiles, because there’s too many things he can’t say, and he’s tired of all the verbal gymnastics.

“That Changmin is a bit of a dark horse,” his close friend Jinyoung offers.

His ex-classmate Soojung begs to differ. “No, Amber’s the one Yunho has to be wary of. She’s good at everything, and she acts friendly, too! You need to stay on your guard, Yun.”

Yunho just smiles, and smiles. 

Occasionally, he glances towards Hojoon for help. For a few minutes after that, there’ll be a change in the subject, or a boisterous drinking game (which Yunho toasts to, with his cup of Cola). 

But always, always; the conversation circles back to Sing! Idol. 

Yunho keeps the smile on his face, and it stays affixed until they've run through two clubs, and did a bit of a cafe crawl and finally, finally, it’s just Hojoon and he. 

They end up at the pocha Yunho frequents, when he can.

Of course it’s better, with just the two of them. He relaxes for the first time tonight.

They had managed to get barbecue and drink too many glasses of Coca-cola, while Yunho talked circles around his Sing! Idol experience and what his non-disclosure agreements allow him to say, and Hojoon offered careful platitudes that Yunho knows were precisely engineered to calm him down.

He also knows he’s talking too much, and about nothing really substantial, since he’s not allowed to.

But Hojoon doesn’t pry. It’s not quite his style.

Yunho does catch his best friend eyeing him strangely, when Yunho cuts himself off too many times from mentioning Changmin. 

The whole mess of his feelings is too convoluted to get into, anyway. Between the fans at the academy, Hyukjae and Taemin’s teasing, his mother’s cat-got-the-cream simpering, well. 

Maybe he just wants to have his best friend to himself for a little while, where he doesn’t need to think about how his half-finished text to Changmin is just sitting there in the message field on their KakaoTalk chat. 

If Hojoon doesn’t know about Changmin, then he won’t ask about him. 

This is just like that thought experiment about paradoxes, the one with a possibly dead cat in a box.

Changmin mentioned it to him once, when he was making Yunho breakfast during the months in the Sing! Idol mansion. Though Yunho can’t, for the life of him, quite remember what it’s called.

“Yun, are you okay?” Hojoon asks him at the end of it, when they’re enjoying soondae soup at Auntie Park’s stall around the corner to his flat. 

It’s so late that it can be considered very early. 

Now that Yunho’s mother is in residence at his flat, going back this time in the morning(?) will just earn him a lecture, for all that he’s newly turned thirty-four years of age, not to mention independent for more than a decade. 

Better to stay out till it’s fully light, and then pretend he’s dropping back into the flat after morning errands. 

“Of course,” Yunho says, after he’s finished swallowing his spoonful of soup. It’s a testament to how much Hojoon has missed him, because the other man hates blood sausage. “Why do you even ask?”

Hojoon doesn’t offer a response. Instead, he just pokes at the sausage-y bits, and makes a face at Yunho. “You know you can tell me anything. Well. Unless you signed some very thick contracts to specifically not give me certain details. Then you can talk around those details, like you just did for the past hour. I’ll still listen.”

“Ah, Hojoon,” Yunho knows his face is probably an embarrassment to him right now, if the squicked out look on Hojoon’s is any indication. 

“Don’t even start,” Hojoon warns hastily, and shoves an entire soondae into Yunho’s mouth.

 

--

 

When he finishes choking on the blood sausage, he looks up to see his best friend gazing contemplatively at him, over the rim of his soju glass. 

Yunho clears his throat, and reaches for his glass of Cola. “What is it?”

Hojoon hums, clearly ruminating. Then he offers a tentative, “you had fun, right? You’re having fun. This singing thing. This competition.”

“Yes,” Yunho gestures towards Auntie Park, who flashes an ‘okay’ gesture with her fingers at him and bends over a batch of frying hotteok. “It is fun. I never did thank you properly, for telling me about the auditions and sharing the contact for the producers.”

Hojoon waves him off with a hand, and pauses. “Any regrets? I know you’ve never felt good about flunking out of the auditions as a teenager.”

“Regrets? You mean when we first came up from Gwangju and my tryout at SM?” Yunho looks back towards him in surprise. “That was a long time ago. And I scored my way into Seoul Arts after that, didn’t I?” 

“Well,” Hojoon finishes up his soju, and sets it aside with a flourish. “It was a long time ago too, that your father threw you out over that. And yet you still can’t forgive him. Time doesn’t matter in the face of these things.”

Yunho blinks, and reaches for the half-full soju bottle. “Did Hyukjae call you? Let’s not discuss that, please. I have made my feelings very clear on that subject many times over.”

“He did,” Hojoon murmurs, and tactfully acquiesces to the latter part of Yunho’s rejoinder. Instead he goes, abruptly, “you haven’t talked much about friends in the competition. Did you make any? Hyukjae and Taemin left earlier, didn’t they?”

“Earlier.” Letting out a snort, Yunho fills Hojoon’s glass. “Don’t let them hear you say that. Hyukjae’s very proud he ranks within the top fifteenth.”

Hojoon accepts the shot with a murmur of thanks. “Oh? So the others left in the competition are now- just competition?”

Yunho sets down the bottle, and fiddles with his chopsticks. “Something like that.”

There’s Changmin. Hojoon really doesn’t need to know that. Yunho reaches for a spoonful of soup. “They’re all nice, and there’s a couple of people I talk to, and… We’ll probably stay in contact, after. Everyone is very hardworking. I think we all want to see how far we can take this thing.”

Hojoon just looks at him while sipping at the liquor. “You’ll probably win, if you truly set your mind on it. You’re the one with the most consistently high scores throughout this thing.” 

Yunho knows he’s hesitated too long when Hojoon’s eyebrow rises, very slightly. “Or am I wrong, Yun?”

Auntie Park comes with freshly pan-fried hotteoks, and luckily there’s no more room for conversation.  

 

--

 

To his surprise, his father shows up at his doorstep to pick his mother up during the weekend that heralds the end of Yunho’s break.

The intercom beeps ten minutes before breakfast. Regarding the meal itself, it’s something their family has been conducting at half past eight for years.

“I’ll get it,” Yunho’s mother calls out from the living room, where she’s marinating a fresh batch of kimchi to store, since Yunho won’t be away from his flat for long absences now. 

She’s already had breakfast done, and they’re just waiting for the rice to finish cooking itself. 

Darting from the loo, Yunho beats her to the intercom. “No, no, you sit. Don’t get up. I’ll scoop out the rice later, too. Now I’ll… check…”

He trails off when he realises what he’s seeing on the screen. Who, actually. Standing awkwardly beneath the ground-floor gate, waiting to be buzzed up. 

The last time his father was at his flat, Yunho was twenty and drunk off of the success of choreographing a top Melon hit for a rather well-known pop group. His earnings for which had topped up the down payment he made for this very flat; and then some.

His father had shown up and made disparaging comments about how Gangnam is a soulless pinnacle and how Yunho’s flat has the temerity to be not quite in Gangnam, which is clearly unacceptable because Jungs strive for the best of everything. 

It hadn't been pretty. He hasn’t darkened Yunho’s doorway in the years since. 

Now he’s here again.

Yunho lets him up without comment, and leaves the front door unlocked. There’s a low buzz of resentment through him. 

Abruptly he remembers Hojoon’s words: ‘yet you still can’t forgive him’. 

There is nothing to forgive when you feel nothing for something.

 

--

 

His father comes through the door and he’s already talking.

Rather, his mouth is open and sounds are issuing from it. “Is it safe to leave your door unlocked like this? Seoul is not Gwangju. The people here are not nice. You are too trusting. Security here does not look top class. I can give you the contact number of the Seoul branch of our security company. We just did a rewiring of the property borders last month. I’ll ask him to bill the improvements for your flat to me.”

“Darling!” Yunho’s mother cries. She’s still on the floor, with her hands full of kimchi, but the surprise on her face is genuine. 

Yunho supposes she knew his father was coming, but perhaps she had expected him after breakfast. 

He bows at the waist, in the general direction of the front door.

“You’re early, darling,” Yunho’s mother is chattering. Her hands flutter around the cabbage heads. “Did you see Jihye yesterday? She rang me that she and Seokhee will drop by for dinner.”

“That boy needs to grow a spine before their wedding,” is his father’s dismissive response, and he starts in on Yunho again. “You really should take more care with yourself.”

Yunho just looks at his father, and waves his phone. He knows his voice is matter of fact. It’s an effort to maintain it thus. “I unlocked it ten seconds ago with my phone.”

“Oh,” his father says, undeterred. “Smart locks are not very good. There might be a blackout and it will just be a useless hunk of metal. I can-”

“I suppose you can have breakfast,” Yunho says, toneless.

He turns towards his mother, and his voice softens, despite himself. “Mum? How much longer do you need for the kimchi? Shall I set the table now?”

Silence, and then his father clears his throat. He lingers at the entrance space. It’s too short to be called an entrance hall, as is the wont for Seoul flats.

His father’s hands are by his side, opening and closing next to his pockets, and he’s a round-shouldered stoop in his trousers and shirt. They’re perfectly pressed -courtesy of their housekeeper- and the only deference he’s made to the weather is that he’s in a navy blue windbreaker. His hair is neatly parted in its usual two-eight ratio hairstyle. 

Yunho’s mother looks between them. “Y-yes, you can, darling.”

“I’ll set the table for two,” Yunho says, and tries for a smile when his father draws himself up, chest puffing out in indignation. He talks over anything the old man may have to offer in the face of such a declaration. “I’m not hungry. I’ll pack a dosirak to the academy. I’ve got a jam-packed morning.”

“You work too much,” his father blusters. “You have staff, let some of them take care of things for you. You’re supposed to be preparing for your competition.”

“Sure,” Yunho replies. 

He aims his smile into the living room this time, because his father has walked in and is already seated on the sofa, at his mother’s right hand. He’s got on another pair of cashmere house slippers that Yunho’s mother had brought and slipped into Yunho’s shoe rack. “My colleagues and I divide and conquer, as much as our individual specialisations allow. As we have been doing for years.”

With that, Yunho performs another very correct bow, and retreats into the kitchen. 

 

--

 

Chapter Text

 

“Is it intimidating, being the sole female contestant left in the game at this stage? Yeah. Am I prepared to fight all those men to win the title of being the first Sing! Idol? Hell yeah.” 

-- Amber LIU (27), travel host, interview segment for Ep 13 Role Reversal challenge.


“Hahahahaha! Can you tell I’m terrified right now?”

-- SHIM Changmin (31), chef, interview segment for Ep 13 Role Reversal challenge.


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Role Reversal Challenge winner: CHANGMIN

 

Two weeks away from the headiness of Yunho and their friendship restored and singing and just this crazy competition that is suddenly his entire life-- 

Two weeks away, and back in his real life, has been good for Changmin. 

It’s helped to realign his perspective on… things. A little. Kind of. Maybe.

Jinwoo, in actual manifestation of the saying ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’, actually allows Changmin back in the kitchen properly this time. 

Garam says that’s just because Seonyeob, as the acting hot part sous chef, has been trying Jinwoo’s patience with one too many renditions of ‘slightly too crispy pan-fried Atlantic cod’.

In any case, Changmin has spent the entire fortnight back in the familiar embrace of Choidot, and working.

Although the actual work has been less than, well, his own expectations. The team does force him to forfeit dinner service each evening, in lieu of sitting down and actually planning his performance for the semi-final and finale. 

Manjae was horrified and snitched on him to the wider team, when Changmin basically admitted during dinner prep that he had no idea of what to do for the semi-final.

“There’s a- I can’t tell you,” he says, scratching at his head, and pushing his way out from where Manjae’s trying to shove him into the rooftop breakroom. 

Changmin’s got lousy luck, because Manjae’s brought reinforcements. Sehyeong and Yongsung, who are supposed to be his boys for hot -the traitors- grab one of his arms each, and march him backwards. “But the producers said we’re supposed to, er, wait, wait-”

“Don’t tell me,” Manjae is cross. “You can’t say it and I don’t want to know, I don’t want to be hunted down. Your producers sound like a nightmare. Just go away, and prepare on your own! You need to win this! I have a bet with your anti on the message boards! You need to win, or I’ll have to shave my head!”

“What is wrong with you,” Changmin protests in horror, and tries to leave. But Sehyeong shoves at him, head-first. “What is wrong with all of you! Hyunseok said we’re full house tonight for dinner, aren’t we?”

“You need to win this,” the three of them chorus in eerie unison. 

One of them shoves him in hard enough that he stumbles, and another closes the door on him, and the third turns the key in the lock. “We’ll come back for you after the first round of dinner rush! Maybe! Fighting!”

So that’s that. 

Changmin sighs, and reaches for his phone, where he’s got preliminary notes down on his song choices for the semi-final. 

 

--

 

The second time they do it, Hyunseok finds out. 

His boss is, however, amused at what he calls “Changmin channelling Oliver Twist”, and cackles too long over it with Hyemi during lunch prep, his habitual gin-and-tonic dangling from a hand.

“All of you are insane,” Changmin says faintly, from where he’s sorting out the giant Ezo scallops with Jinwoo. The larger ones go to his head chef, to the grill, whilst the smaller ones go to him for the aglio olio capellini.

Next to him, Jinwoo harrumphs loudly. He flips his shucking knife.

“Not you, of course,” Changmin hastens to reassure. “I know you miss having me back-”

“I’ve got two hundred thousand won riding on you winning that one hunded million,” Jinwoo rumbles. His face is inscrutable. “Don’t screw up.”

“Oh.” Changmin nearly stabs himself in the palm with his own knife. He coughs, and slips it correctly in between the shells instead.

Across them, Hyunseok tilts his head at them, and just crosses his arms while laughing harder.

“But don’t you dare take the record deal,” Jinwoo reaches out, and cuffs a passing Seonyeob around the head with a casual elbow. “If you leave your part in this one’s hands for any longer than three weeks at a time, I swear I’ll fillet and grill him.”

 

--

 

Before they went on break, the producers had instructed them to prepare and practice for both their semi-final and finale song choices.

That’s five songs in total. Two to be performed in the morning, for the semi-final, and a set of three for the finale. 

For one of them in the competition, the set of three will not be performed.

Changmin will like to think that’ll be him, because he’s up against -of all people!- Yunho and Amber.

But something in him starts guiltily and thinks of what Yunho had said to him, during that night they repaired their friendship.

“Give yourself the credit,” Yunho said. 

“I just found it funny that you’re telling me you respect me for qualities that I feel like I’m learning from you.” Said Yunho.

“Be kinder to yourself,” Yunho had said.

Changmin’s trying. So he resolutely avoids thinking that he’ll be kicked out after the semi-final, and tries to quieten his mind as much as possible to prepare the five songs. 

He practices doggedly when he can, either on his own, or with his Taylor.

Choidot is supportive, beyond the teasing and the arm-twisting and the door-locking. Mostly.

His sisters make excuses to drop by Choidot to see him on a too-frequent basis, which of course excites the younger boys. They quieten down, after Changmin stares at them with dead eyes and heats up too much oil in his usual saucepan. 

(Boiling oil hurts more than a sharp knife.)

The first time they barge in during Changmin’s recess from Sing! Idol, Thing #1 just stares, while Thing #2 reaches for his phone in mute demand. 

His phone is where Changmin’s got his notes and his songs and his texts with the producers, and Yoonju. The latter has been assigned to him as his personal stylist for however long Changmin will stay in Sing! Idol, and is thus hard at work designing what she calls his “visual concepts”. 

Changmin hands it over obediently, after Jiyeon nails him with a glare too similar to their mother’s. 

Sooyeon is still intent on starting a staring competition with him. Changmin will like to indulge her, but he is also in the middle of lunch prep and Jinwoo is already shifting impatiently at the grill. 

He hasn’t yet let loose, because Jiyeon is still afraid of Jinwoo after all these years. Belying that, Changmin knows his head chef has a soft spot for his sisters, ever since they showed up as bright-eyed teenagers on their habitual visits every few months or so. 

“Say what you must,” he says, pan-searing the foie gras to be utilised in the entree. “And then get out, both of you. It’s unhygienic and we’re busy.”

Jiyeon looks away from her frantic scrolling of Changmin’s phone, to pout. “We haven’t seen you for weeks, Big Brother. Don’t be mean.”

Sooyeon just folds her arms. “Did you watch the Role Reversal episode?” 

The aforementioned episode had aired the previous night. Changmin’s phone had blown up in texts and calls and various acquaintances cat-calling him across the different social media platforms he is unfortunately subscribed to.

He hasn’t had time to look through them in detail, other than reply his mother with a polite denial when she had texted, is being a gigolo your new business plan after wasting your father’s money at culinary school?  late last night.

“I lived the Role Reversal episode,” Changmin informs Sooyeon. 

He is finished with the foie gras, and turns to raise his eyebrows at Manjae, who is blatantly slacking off and also eavesdropping with equal brazenness. He’s also got a long-standing crush on Sooyeon, who’s too old for him. “Can I help you?”

I watched the Role Reversal episode,” Manjae shares, uninvited. “I didn’t know you are that flexible. And that you made such ample use of the gym membership Boss got all of us.”

Changmin just eyes him, unimpressed. “Garam, can you please come and collect your rubbish? Thanks.”

“Hey,” Manjae says, injured. “You don’t mean that. I fight your oppressors on your behalf on a daily basis.”

Sooyeon snorts. The tiny sound makes Manjae stand straighter, and he puffs out his chest.

“You mean you just like shouting at Internet strangers on Naver under your many different accounts,” Changmin shakes his head and turns to pitch in for the prep on the cherry port sauce. It pairs the steak today for both services, and Seonyeob has been struggling by himself with it for the past forty minutes.

Manjae would have protested more, but Garam does come by then, and hauls him back to the cold part with two fingers hooked into the back of his collar. “You can fight with Changmin later. Where the hell are my salads? Plate those first before you flirt!”

Thing #2 has her face practically buried in Changmin’s phone and is clearly and blatantly ignoring everything else. Changmin flicks a glance at Thing #1, who’s still staring. She raises her eyebrows, when she realises that Changmin is looking back.

“Go home,” Changmin says, and nudges at her gently, with his hip. “Come on. I’m at work.” 

She sniffs.

“I’ll text you?” Changmin tries. 

“We’ll remind him!” Manjae volunteers loudly, from the other end of the kitchen. He yelps when Garam gets him by the ear. 

Thing #1 just narrows her eyes at Changmin. 

“Don’t do that, you look like Mother,” Changmin tells her. It’s enough for her eyes to fly wide open in horror, and she lunges at Changmin with a stifled, “you take that back!”

“Ahem,” coughs Jinwoo at the grill.

Sooyeon pauses mid-lunge. Jiyeon shrinks. 

“Go home,” Changmin says again; whispers, really. Jinwoo is preparing the charcoal for his grill with much more noise than warranted. “Go to my flat. You two can do a sleepover and you can quiz me to your heart’s content, how’s that?”

It’s enough, and his sisters vanish at record speed with identical gleaming smiles. 

Jinwoo subsides with an inarticulate grumble. 

Changmin looks up, and accidentally catches Hyunseok’s eye, who just salutes him with yet another gin-and-tonic.

It’s only eleven in the morning. Changmin rolls his eyes, and bends back over his saucepans. 

 

--

 

The result of Changmin’s foolish offer, made on the spur of the moment, is that he ends up being grilled under his sisters’ tender loving care that night, more so than a rack of lamb under Jinwoo’s tongs.

Thing #1 and Thing #2 make him answer all of their lunatic questions in detail. From his friendship with Yunho (“Yes, we are friends,” Changmin says defensively. “Is it such a strange concept? Me having friends not from work?”), to his apparent penchant for being scantily clad on national television (“I do not have a penchant for that!” Changmin squawks. “It was just two episodes!”) to debating Amber’s sexuality (“She’s cute,” Jiyeon muses, to Changmin’s horror.) to questioning Kyuhyun’s relationship status (“I’m just saying,” Sooyeon defends herself. “I have a colleague who’s his fan and she was super devastated when you guys kicked him out. If he’s single-”). 

Changmin is just amazed at his sisters’ tenacity. 

By the time they release him, it’s five in the morning. They’ve further finagled out from him a promise that they will get first dibs on seats, if the semi-final (and finale) allows familial visitors to join the recording sessions as audience members. 

He thinks dazedly that the folks over at the National Intelligence Service can learn a thing or two or ten from his siblings.

Changmin can either take a cat nap and feel like death warmed over when he has to wake in an hour for work, or he can chug three cans of instant coffee and hope for the best. 

Door number two it is. He staggers to work with rumpled hair and swollen eyes. Changmin’s no longer of the age where he can shrug off an entire day without sleep.

Hyunseok takes one look at him and walks away into the pantry to snicker loudly.

These days, he provides so much amusement for his boss, he can practically double up for the Sunday variety time-slot, Changmin tells himself sourly inside his head. 

He presses the heels of his hands to his eyes, hard, and goes to prepare the bluefin tuna for searing. 

 

--

 

There are teasers of himself, Amber and Yunho released, to hype the final week of Sing! Idol. 

Changmin has nearly forgotten about them. They were filmed about three weeks ago, in the middle of their publicity rounds, and the only thing he retains as a memory born out of trauma was how Yoonju had made the makeup artists slather too much makeup on him (again) and put him in a too-tight choker and and then paraded him around to show off her efforts.

Given it’s the final round of media blitzing, the production crew have clearly spared no expense. There are short video clips, mobile-optimised and vertical on Naver, horizontal and looping at subway digital billboards, and thirty-second versions playing on prime-time television. 

For the final few days before Changmin has to head back to Sing! Idol, he walks with his gaze more often than not focused on the ground, just so he doesn’t have to watch repeat versions of himself trying -and failing- to smoulder at the camera. 

It means that Changmin’s also mercilessly roasted by friends and acquaintances who get the choker-wearing, hair-teased, made-up version of him shoved into their faces via the various traditional and social media platforms. 

One of his old university classmates re-shares his mobile-optimised teaser on Twitter with the comment ‘I went to school with this and he was a giant nerd who could cook and couldn’t talk. How people have changed. #DecadeGlowUp’.

The post goes viral in minutes.

Even the Sing! Idol group chatroom on Kakao blows up; though the three of them are, out of silent and mutual accord, staying mum for fear of inadvertently leaking spoilers. Only Chanyeol and Seohyun choose to conspicuously not comment.

Taeyeon doesn’t text in the groupchat. But she does call him and basically wishes him luck in a few spare, gruff sentences.

“I miss you,” Changmin tells her. She hangs up instantly. 

He smiles to himself, wistful, and KaTalks her a row of Angry Battle Taeyeon stickers.

On the side, Wendy sends him a recording of her playing a jazz piano cover of Rusty Nail, and a text message as well. Changmin fighting! Avenge me pls pls :( :( :( make Team BoA proud kkkk :* cut Yunho anddd Amber ok u can dOo iIT I WILL HELP fighting fighting fighting Chef Shim haz sharp knives!!   

He brushes a finger over the frankly frightening show of bad spelling, and sends back only a Fighting Unplugged Wendy sticker and “Are you okay with the score?” in response.

 

--

 

It is thus that Changmin comes back together with Amber and Yunho one fine day in late winter, after two weeks of Real Life, and practising and practising and practising until Changmin thinks he can see the lyrics behind his eyelids when he closes his eyes, and long long long conversations with the producers over the phone.

Coincidentally, it’s his birthday today. Not that he has any intention of announcing it.

Since call time is eleven in the morning, it means Changmin had more than enough time to wake at seven in the morning to make a warm bowl of miyeok soup for himself. 

He savoured the seaweed and beef whilst ringing his mother to both offer his felicitations to her hard work thirty two years ago, and to allow her to verbally and lovingly abuse him to her heart’s content over the line. His father only chuckled, and wished him a peaceful birthday with many happy returns. 

Thing #1 and Thing #2 send him an entire sticker pack’s worth of Role Reversal Changmins ripping his shirt off in slow motion, to his embarrassment. He doesn’t want to think too long about his sisters painstakingly trimming video clips of his naked torso. 

The shouty texts from Team Choidot about his birthday are still trickling in. It’s enough for him.

Now, the Sing! Idol team has gathered for one final day of prep, rehearsals and last-minute tweaks. 

Tomorrow will be the semi-final, and finale.

It’s the end of the competition, then. It'll be the last day. 

Changmin doesn’t want to think about that. He’s just grateful that it means he’ll get to sing for a little more; and watch Yunho till the end, even after he loses at the semi-final. It’s on the same day, anyway. It’s highly likely that the producers will allow him to at least watch from backstage.   

Amber jumps on his back. Changmin wobbles, but he’s proud that he doesn’t stumble. “Hello, Amber.”

“Changmin!” Amber shouts, and gives him a friendly cuff around his ear. “Hi! Did you pump weights and guzzle steroids during the break, because da-amn, boy. It’s not summer yet!”

“I was working,” Changmin says, half-cross and half-laughing. He pats her high on her back, and smiles at Yunho. “Hi, Yunho.”

“Hello,” Yunho offers, smiling. He’s looking very handsome today, even though his coat is a little rumpled, as is the shirt he has on beneath. At least it’s very smart-looking, and paired with grey trousers and black boots.

Changmin feels a little grubby in comparison, because he’s only got a puffy parka on and a tee beneath. Probably that was why Amber made her comment thus. 

“You went for a…?” Yunho is saying, and gesticulates towards his own hair, which is coiffed back very neatly. 

Blank, Changmin mirrors him for a couple of times before he understands. “Oh! My hair! Yep, er, that day we saw each other- I went for a trim after. Yoonju wants my hair short.”

Yunho makes a moue of understanding, even as Amber (who’s still hanging off of him, Changmin realises belatedly) demands, “you two saw each other over the break? Unfair! I want to hang out too.”

Laughing, Yunho demurs, “no, we just ran into each other, that’s all- it was a grocery run-”

Changmin just smiles like an idiot at the both of them, until the producers come for them. 

 

--

 

Soyoung sits in front of them in yet another conference room, and says point-blank to Changmin, “happy birthday.” 

“Thank you,” Changmin says automatically, and pauses. Oh.

Beaming, she just folds her hands. There’s a wall of cameras reminiscent of her early briefings to them behind and around them. The lenses are busily capturing both her, and him, as well as Amber and Yunho. 

Yunho is the first to react. He’s seated next to Changmin, and now he’s reaching over now and oh! Changmin’s being hugged. Very tightly. 

Yunho’s cheek is pressed against his. Oh.

The conference room has a heater. Yunho’s warmer yet.

“Happy birthday, Changmin!” Is being excitedly said right into his ear.

“Thank- thank you,” Changmin says. He knows he sounds a little faint. He feels a bit faint. Yunho smells nice, like sweet fruity (strawberry?) shower gel and clean soap. 

He’s mostly fine and used to Yunho now. Texting during their break had helped, after that super surprising run-in with Yunho and his absolute sweetheart of a mother. 

But. Sometimes, when Yunho makes sudden movements like this. It’s, well. 

It can be rather distressing.

Changmin doesn’t need to check to know his ears are now red.

Yunho pulls away slightly, but he’s still got an arm around Changmin’s shoulder. His palm is blazing hot in the crook of Changmin’s neck. 

Amber has one of Changmin’s hands in hers and she’s going excitedly, “it’s Changmin’s birthday? Today? Dude! You didn’t say anything- Whoa, guys! Cakes!”

Cakes, indeed. The production team is wheeling in two cakes, both giant, into the conference room. Hyejin and Jaeni settle in front of them, eyes bright and notepads ready. 

The cameramen are having a field day.

One of the cakes is very clearly strawberry-flavoured and Yunho’s gasping in excitement and leaning half across Changmin to get a better look and Changmin can’t stand this. His face is definitely red now and he doesn’t know where to put his remaining hand.

Does he lay it on Yunho’s shoulder too, in a very brotherly way? Is it socially acceptable for a friend to put it on his back? Or on top of Yunho’s hand? 

He’s lucky Amber still has his other hand clutched in hers. He doesn’t need to worry about that.

“Now I’m sad about being a September baby,” Amber’s grumbling, to everyone’s laughter.

Changmin barely has the presence of mind to go, “I can’t- thank you- I know you guys like to film me cooking and eating but I can’t- I can’t finish two cakes!”

“Who says they’re both for you?” Soyoung is very visibly enjoying herself. She nods towards Yunho and goes, “you might think we didn’t know, because you were all on break, but- happy belated birthday to our favourite dance seongsaeng-nim!” 

“It’s your birthday too?” Changmin pulls at Yunho’s sleeve, flustered. “Happy- happy birthday! To you!”

Yunho’s laughing, and now he’s ruffling Changmin’s hair. He is breathing right into Changmin’s ear. “No, no. It was days ago-”

“I’m so left out,” Amber whines, before she breaks out into raucous laughter, echoed by the crew. “I want to be a February baby too! Is the other cake chocolate? Dibs on both your cakes.”

She says that, but she also ends up being the first person to smash a handful of each cake into both their faces. 

After that first smear, Yunho gets over his surprise first, and gets competitive.

Myunghwan and Jihwan nearly trip over each other to get close-ups of him scooping a handful of strawberry fondant-and-cream, a menacing expression on his face.

“Oh, shit,” Amber chortles, dancing backwards, “oh, you guys will have to beep me, oh, fuck, I’m dead, someone help me-”

Changmin just sits and laughs, heart warm, whilst Yunho smears strawberry bits into Amber’s face and hair, to the joy of at least six cameramen. 

 

--

 

They get down to business after the merriment. Changmin’s whisked off to face the tender mercies of Yoonju, and the extended glam team assigned to him.

It isn’t a fair fight. They get hold of his face before he can even struggle. Jihwan is a gleeful presence in the corner.

Yoonju is making thoughtful noises, while they stab at his eyes with eyeliner. The makeup chair squeaks slightly, as he squirms. She's rattling on, “not your usual, I want to see it when his eyes are all smoky and lined, yes, like that.  Use the black!”

The makeup artist protests, “his eyes are brown-” 

“Ow,” Changmin says, eyes watering, when they go too fiercely at his waterline whilst squabbling over his head.

“No,” Yoonju is hissing, “I know his eyes are brown, you imbecile, I’ve been dressing him for how many months now? I don’t want him to be softened in brown, Hyeyoung! He needs to be big and bold and brazen and beautiful! Black! We’re doing black! Dramatic liquid gel black ’liner, yes, that-”

He knows Yoonju is on a roll, what with all the alliteration. But Changmin just wants to make sure that he is still able to see after this. “Can I have a tissue,” he manages.

“Keep your eyes closed,” both of them snap at him rudely, and go back to sniping at each other about what colour of eyeliner and type of mascara suits Changmin’s best. Beneath his eyelids, there’s liquid and Changmin just wants to make sure it’s him tearing involuntarily from being stabbed in the eyes and not. Well. Bleeding. 

(He’s terrified of both. Using them just makes him jittery that they’ll go through his eyeballs one day. Whenever the stylists put mascara on him, he feels like he should be sleeping somehow.) 

Finally, there’s a lull. 

“Yes,” Yoonju murmurs. “That’s it. Better.”

“Can I open my eyes?” He asks tentatively, and cringes back when they both bellow “no” right in his face with more force than warranted. 

“I’m thinking glitter,” Hyeyoung finally offers. “If we go dramatic on the eyes, we need to highlight the contours. Glitter, around here, then bronzer, here and here-”

Her fingertips are ticklish upon his cheeks. Changmin screws up his face reflexively, and yelps when Hyeyoung taps him none too gently on his left cheekbone.

“Stop moving,” she orders, while Yoonju is shouting for the hair stylist. “You’re messing up my checks. I need to visualise. We’re lucky you have good skin. You don’t moisturise enough!”

“It tickles!” He protests, but she just tilts his chin up and back, and there’s the soft brush of applicators tickling at his eyelids and cheeks.

“I am thinking,” Yoonju is back, and of all horrors, she is thinking, “that he needs a change up there. I will have him in these and these-”

There’s the sound of fabric rustling, and vague noises of agreement from the rest of the glam team.

His eye really hurts. “Ladies, can I please have,” Changmin starts, and someone swipes a tissue carefully along the edge of his eyelids. “Oh! Thank you.”

“Now stop whinging and let us work,” someone else says, kindly enough, and then suddenly there are too many hands in his hair, and is that a pair of scissors clipping away?

“Wait,” Changmin says, a little frantic. “Yoonju. Yoonju! I had my haircut. I did it during the break. You said it was too long- you said- I’ve already done it-”

“It’s still too long,” Yoonju dismisses him, and then instructs, “the sides, make the side more close-shaven, yes, we want to show off his head shape-”

 

--

 

He blinks at himself in the mirror, after. 

It’s time to go test the outfits Yoonju has prepared, after two weeks of discussion over texts and calls. 

But Yoonju had insisted, contrary to her usual doctrine, for him to open his eyes and take a good look at himself first. 

She’s smug, a literal devil at his shoulder. She looks as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth.  “It looks awesome, doesn’t it? You look awesome. I am awesome.”

Changmin touches his hair tentatively. There’s so little of it, and the styling team has coloured it into a warm dark brown. They’ve got his eyes shaded in smoky black to be larger and better looking than they really are and his cheekbones are now razor sharp beneath artful applications of bronzer. 

When he turns, he can see the faint shimmer of glitter along his cheeks. 

There’s a handsome stranger looking back at him.

He doesn’t look like he even minds that his mouth is oddly large and he’s got too big ears and his shoulders aren’t wide enough. 

He looks like he might actually be okay with how he looks.

It’s a good thing he’s gay and yet still comfortable in his masculinity. There is a lot of makeup on his face.

Changmin presses his lips together, a wide thin line born out of reflex. The stranger in the mirror does so too, and the spell is broken. 

“I look… okay,” he says, flicking a glance to Yoonju’s reflection, where she stands behind him. Changmin can see from the mirror that he’s blushing. His entire face is red, and there is a muscle twitching at the corner of his right eye. “I look. Okay. Shiny. Wow. That’s. You made Hyeyoung put a lot of makeup on me.”

“More than okay, kid,” Yoonju snorts, but she’s got a fond smirk curling the edge of her mouth, so he’s safe. “There’s no more hiding your face behind bangs with that cut. You’d better flaunt it on stage, you hear? The stage lights will not make you look washed out, like this. At least we could skip liquid foundation and concealer.”

“I’ll try. My best?” Changmin scruffs a hand at the back of his head, and blinks when his hand mostly touches bare neck instead. He’ll have to get used to that.

Yoonju drives a loving elbow into his side. “Too right you will. My efforts deserve nothing less.  Now let’s go work on the outfits for tomorrow. I’ve got a different idea for each of the two rounds of the semi-final.” 

 

-- 

 

Each of them are with their own set of production crew for final rehearsals for much of the day. 

Changmin practices, until he’s clearing his throat too many times and the producers go wide-eyed and practically shove him off the stage and then staff comes by with warm honey water and red ginseng and pours what feels like a million other tonics down his throat.

“Sorry, I’m still not used to wearing the in-ears yet, can I try one more time with the backing band,” Changmin volunteers. He cowers back when Jooyoung and Youngmin chorus a loud ‘no’ at him,a sentiment echoed by what feels like half the crew.

Someone shoves him back into his chair in front of the playback monitor, and someone else jams a handful of black garlic into his mouth. 

It makes Changmin focus on not choking instead, and he’s further distracted when Jaeni tells the producers to loop his own playbacks for him to watch. Youngmin steals the chance to let the studio backing band off for a smoke break.

 

--

 

In silent accord, the top three don’t mention their own preparations to each other. 

Although! Changmin had gotten a glimpse of Yunho in the distance, when he was being hurried to test hair and makeup for his finale outfit (he doesn’t even know if he’ll get to wear that), and it was Yunho’s turn to have a run-through in the studio. 

He didn’t get to see very well -Hyeyoung was attacking his face with brushes- but he thought Yunho was in black, and something that ends in shiny-looking boots.

One thing that all three of them have in common is that their individual glam teams have definitely stepped up their game. 

It’s extremely apparent, as they gather for the last official item on today’s schedule- a photoshoot of the top three. 

They were hardly slacking off in the first place, but now they’re clearly not reining in their wildest impulses. Amber has turquoise hair, and Changmin’s got more than half of his chopped off and the remainder coloured a warm brown. 

Even Yunho, the relatively sedate one out of all three of them (in that his hair is still black and there is no drastic changes to length) has had his hair teased into a vague bullet-like shape emphasising his jaw and lips, and the rest of him chucked into a shockingly pink jacket with too many rivets and zippers, in a way that leaves Changmin stealing glances. 

 

--

 

They get to head back to their own homes at the end of all the prep, since there’s only the three of them. The production team no longer has the Sing! Idol mansion rented, given that it doesn’t make sense to house only three people in such a large space, and for two days. 

Before their release, dinner’s settled for them, courtesy of the crew. 

Changmin demurs, since he has leftover miyeok guk warming in his rice cooker at home, and wrapped rice in his refrigerator. He does however, finish up the slice of dark chocolate cake leftover from the impromptu birthday celebrations the crew threw him and Yunho in the morning. The cakes were large enough that quite a bit was salvageable even after Amber and Yunho’s cake war. 

Since they have had cameras shoved into their faces all day, and will have that again basically all of tomorrow -the final day of the competition!- the crew takes pity on them, and lets them have dinner without a single lens present. 

“Are you just horrified and abstaining since it’s takeaway jajang-myeon,” Yunho asks around a mouthful of noodles and sauce.

“I like jajang-myeon!” Changmin protests. Yunho has a bit of sauce on his chin. Changmin hands him a serviette silently, to Yunho’s garbled thanks. 

Even though he’s not eating it, he’s seated with Yunho and Amber whilst the other two partake of their dinner.

They’re in yet another conference room backstage at the broadcast station, and both of them have already had a go at Changmin’s new hair before sitting down to eat, because everybody was too busy at the photoshoot earlier being posed in different positions and pairings to truly chat.

Amber whistles loud and long, before making an exaggerated leer at him. Changmin makes a threatening gesture towards her freshly dyed hair, and she dances out of reach, laughing. 

Yunho, however.

“You look good, Changminnie,” Yunho marvels. “The team outdid themselves!”

“They did. They did! Thank you, I’ll let them know you said that. Yours outdid themselves with you too! That urban look. It was. It was very. Very inspired!” Changmin just busies himself with helping Amber unpack her extra order of dumplings to go with her jajang-myeon

He says now, in elaboration, since Yunho’s paused between mouthfuls to look at him expectantly, “I eat it, too. Just not the takeaway kind.”

Amber just snickers and mutters, “more for me then,” and reaches for the additional order of pickles.

Yunho raises an eyebrow at Changmin. His cheeks are puffed out from food and his mouth is a smared mess of oil and jajang sauce again. 

He looks adorable. 

Changmin wrenches his gaze away and shrugs in mild embarrassment, “I can make my own. It’s really easy.” 

That pulls a snort out from Amber, who then nearly chokes from doing too many things at once.

When they’ve both thumped her vigorously on her back and fed her water and her airways are again clear, she rolls her eyes at Changmin. “Easy for you maybe, Chef. Not for us mortals.”

Yunho stretches over to high-five her.  

Changmin stares at them both, flustered and slightly forlorn. He didn’t mean it that way. 

Amber ignores him cheekily in favour of scarfing down more noodles, her words once again unintelligible. 

But his gaze makes Yunho laugh, and lean over to scuff very gently at the newly shaven grain of hair, at the back of Changmin’s head. “We’re joking, Changminnie. But now you have to make jajang-myeon for us, okay? You can’t say it like that, and not offer. That’s just cruel.”

“Of course, if you really want to eat it,” Changmin starts, but Yunho cuts him off. “I always want to eat the food you make, Changminnie.”

Changmin thinks that’s affection, inside Yunho’s voice. He doesn’t want to guess.

Yunho’s palm is blazing heat wrapped around the back of Changmin’s neck. 

Changmin lets himself lean very slightly into it, heartened. 

 

--

 

He goes home for a nap that feels entirely too short. 

Before he knows it, it’s half-past-four in the morning and Changmin’s making his way back to the broadcast station, bleary-eyed and dazed in a mini-van they’ve sent for him. He’s done more punishing hours in Choidot’s early years, but those are also a distant part of Changmin’s twenties. He’s never felt his age this keenly before like he has in this one month. 

He’s lucky that Jooyoung is here and basically hauling him around, with Jihwan gleefully filming every step of the way. Changmin walks in the wrong direction twice, while humming his song choices -nothing like last-minute practice!- beneath his breath. 

Jooyoung loses his patience when it looks like there is an impending third time, and also his usual wont to stay out of the camera as much as possible. Clucking his tongue, he wraps a tight hand around Changmin’s elbow and hauls him until they reach the dressing rooms. Then Changmin’s pressed into a chair.

Maybe it’s because he isn’t quite awake yet, but it hasn’t quite sunk in that this is the final day of Sing! Idol.

Everything feels a little surreal, until Jihwan shoves a hot Americano into Changmin’s hand. 

“Hot,” Changmin manages. Sentences are a little too difficult for him right now. Yoonju is already striding around behind him, barking orders at the hair stylists. 

Jihwan clicks his tongue, but he’s kind enough to swap the hot Americano for an iced version before he picks up the camera again. 

Half the beverage goes down Changmin’s throat before the haze of not enough sleep fades and the adrenaline and caffeine start to kick in. 

He blinks at Yoonju and Hyeyoung’s bustling reflections. “Good morning.”

“Go change into your trousers first. The blue ones we settled on last night,” Yoonju barks in lieu of a greeting. “The producers say it’s time for your final checks.”

 

--

 

Things putter on, until Changmin wakes up fully by the time they put an egg sandwich into his hand and tell him, Changmin, it’s okay, conserve your voice, we’re okay and the blocking is finalised, now go get your final hair and makeup done because Soyoung will shank you if you perform in just a parka and a tee and trousers, the sandwich is meant for your mouth, stop holding onto it like that. 

“It’s the semi-final,” he tells Jihwan and Jihwan’s camera blankly. “It’s the semi-final.”

The mutant caterpillars in his stomach from when Yunho was angry at him weeks ago have all metamorphosed into butterflies. Giant butterflies with frantically beating wings. 

“Congratulations,” Youngjin says, while speed-walking past them. He looks harassed and it’s only seven in the morning. “Are you done for wardrobe? Why are you not in your stage outfit? The semi-final briefing is in half an hour!”

He gets shoved back into the dressing rooms and is finally allowed to head to the stage area after the makeup artists haul him back twice to correct the foundation at his temples, because Changmin is already sweating from the adrenaline strumming through him. 

The stage is still closed to the public at this current time. Changmin had heard from Jooyoung earlier that the audience members will be allowed to enter at nine, because the live telecast for the semi-final starts at a mind-boggling ten in the morning. 

“People are coming that early to hear us sing?” Is the first thought off of Changmin’s head and out of his mouth. Jihwan is, luckily enough, in the middle of changing tapes.

Jooyoung looks at him like he’s gone soft in the brain. “Yes. We’re Sing! Idol.”

 

--

 

He sidles into the stage area now, mindful that there is already a crowd there and a little sorry that he is late. Fortunately (for him), it turns out that briefing hasn’t started yet, because he’s not the one latest to gather and Amber is still in the middle of being squeezed into her leather trousers, according to Eun-ah. 

Yunho however, is already in the thick of things as usual and looking all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. He comes to give Changmin a hug, mindful not to rumple either of their jackets or get caught on the sequins of Changmin’s top thing. “Changminnie! Hi! Good morning!”

Yunho,” Changmin says, and hugs him back tightly, to the consternation of at least three of the stylists hovering in the vicinity. “It’s the semi-final.”

They get hauled apart, and Yoonju’s assistants attack Changmin with garment steamers, while Yunho laughs. He’s got a leather jacket top thing on, and it doesn’t look like it’ll crease easily, so he’s left alone and un-scolded. The material looks durable, unlike the vaguely military-looking  jacket Yoonju’s thrown on top of Changmin over a sequined vest thing with a plunging neckline.

Changmin doesn’t know how to describe it, except that it is blue and it has two rows of buttons marching down and trousers in the same colour that end, oddly enough, in zippers. They also shoved his feet into silver heeled boots that leave him towering awkwardly over everyone, except Yunho.

Somehow Yoonju has made it look good, though “not for long,” she is hissing at Changmin now, “if you insist on rumpling and ruining yourself before we even go live, idiot boy!

“We can talk like this,” Yunho offers, standing a good two metres away, to afford Yoonju’s creations the respect they deserve. 

“It’s the semi-final,” Changmin tells him desperately, as the steamers run warm lines down the sides of his ribs. “And you look like a biker.”

Yunho just wiggles one hand at him, clad in a leather half-glove. “Maybe I am a biker.”

“Are you dancing, then?” Changmin demands. His filter is apparently gone, demolished by giant mutant butterflies in his stomach and adrenaline and too many Americanos. “You don’t look like you’re singing a ballad.”

“You don’t look like you’re singing a ballad either,” Yunho returns, grinning. “You’re too… shiny for that.”

“I am covering ONE OK ROCK for the first Quickfire,” Changmin blurts out. One of the assistant producers hisses in reaction.

Changmin just blinks and raises his arms, because the stylists want to go over the undersides of the sleeves, too. “What? It’s Yunho. He’ll win over me. It doesn’t matter if he knows what I am singing. It’s Yunho. We are barely an hour to the semi-final.”

“Okay,” Yunho says. He’s coming over whilst the stylists emit noises of protestation, but all he does is to hold the very edge of Changmin’s right sleeve with two fingers. “Time out. Sorry, ladies, I’m stealing Changmin for a while. Yes, Youngmin, I know that the briefing is in five minutes. We won’t take too long.”

They go like that. Changmin’s walking of his own accord, the edge of his sleeve still caught at the very end of Yunho’s fingers, until they’re in the hallway. 

Jihwan and Myunghwan are filming in the distance, from the far end that opens into the stage area.

“Breathe,” Yunho tells him, not unkindly. His eyes are intent on Changmin’s and his face is bent close. “You look like you’re going to pass out.”

“I am breathing,” Changmin tells him. His own voice sounds too thin and too high even to his ears.

“You need to,” Yunho starts, and Changmin finishes together with him, “give myself more credit. Yes. I know.” 

Yunho’s head goes a little back at that, and he looks surprised. Then he breaks out into a brilliant grin. “Changminnie!”

Changmin’s heart can’t take this sight. 

Why is Yunho so kind? The giant mutant butterflies are having a riot. 

If he has a heart attack, does it mean his corpse has to stagger to its feet to perform? 

“Fighting,” Yunho is saying now. The unbearable wattage of his grin has dimmed down to something sweeter and smaller. 

He’s giving Changmin an air hug, arms exaggeratedly akimbo so that he doesn’t touch the actual fabric of Changmin’s outfit. Changmin loves him so much. “Changmin fighting! Come on. Breathe. One, two. In, out.”

“Yunho fighting,” Changmin murmurs, breathless. He takes a few breaths, inhale-exhale, in Yunho’s rhythm, and tries to collect the tattered edges of his composure. “I’m breathing. I’m going… I’m going to go hard against you, so you’d- you’d better.”

“I look forward to it,” Yunho laughs, and tugs again at Changmin’s sleeve, because it’s time to go back inside.

 

--

 

Everyone is finally ready and gathered. Youngjin doesn’t waste any time, and conducts the briefing in his usual no-nonsense manner. It’s nothing that they haven’t heard, throughout the two weeks of filming break and preparation work leading up to today. 

But Changmin nods along anyway, marginally calmed by Yunho’s words. Youngjin goes, “as you know, the semi-final consists of two rounds. The first is a three-way Quickfire Challenge, where you perform a song each, with the audience deciding the challenge winner by popular vote. The winner will get to sit out the second round, and is basically guaranteed a spot in the final challenge of Sing! Idol.”

He pauses to drink a sip of water, and continues, “The other two competitors, whoever you are, will have to battle each other in a 1-versus-1 song battle right after, and the winner of the round is deduced by popular vote as well. Upon the result, the second-runner up will not be able to perform anymore, and will have to head immediately to sit with the judges. Thereafter, the two finalists of Sing! Idol will have six hours to prepare for the final tonight.” 

They nod. Amber reaches out, to hold Changmin’s hand in one hand, and Yunho’s in her other. 

Youngjin smiles at them. “It’s been a long journey, guys. You’ve fought well each step of the way. We see it. The nation sees it. Do well today.”

He stands, and bows at them, to applause from the crew. Changmin lets go of Amber’s hand, to clap. His hands hurt from how furious and fast he’s smacking them together.

 

--

 

They get a surprise, when it’s nine o’clock in the morning, and members of the live audience start trickling in. The stands are built to a larger capacity today to accommodate the higher numbers. 

Except it’s not audience members, after all. Not yet. It’s-

“Surprise!” Hyukjae and Donghae shout in unison, and explode into raucous laughter.

“Everyone’s here,” Yunho is saying, hands outstretched and furiously waving. “Guys! You’re all here!”

And they are. Even Yeri is here, looking impossibly cute bundled up in a pink jumper and skirt. Amber strides over to gather her, and Victoria, in a group hug. She’s already talking a mile a minute. Luna and Kyungsoo are taking turns, to shake her hand.

Changmin’s eyes skips over them, over Taemin waving back at Yunho, over Wendy blowing kisses at him (he makes to catch them in his hands, laughing) and shouting “see you later!”, over Tiffany craning her neck to talk to Zhou Mi, over Minho jostling Irene, over Taeyeon and Henry sniping at each other, over the full turnout of the Sing! Idol contestants, until-

He goes over, hurtles, really; and grabs at Kyuhyun’s hands. “I can’t hug you, Counsellor, or the stylists will string me up by my intestines.” 

Kyuhyun doesn’t miss a beat. He flips his hands over, so he’s holding Changmin’s hands back. “That’s all right. Our hands will hug, Chef. And our shippers will weep.”

Changmin laughs harder than he should at that.

It goes a little bit out of hand, and he ends up hanging on for dear life, his weight mostly on Kyuhyun’s wrists, as he laughs and laughs and laughs. 

He laughs so hard that he’s hunching over.

Over the top of his head, he hears Kyuhyun ask, “what happened to him?”

To Changmin’s surprise, it’s Yunho that answers. His voice sounds very close. “Nerves. He had a bit of a freakout earlier. Hello, Kyuhyun. It’s good to see you.”

“Hi, my dancing king,” Kyuhyun responds cheerfully. He’s still mostly hanging onto Changmin’s hands, except it’s turned into an odd sort of mutual wrist-holding gesture now. “You’re totally going to kick Chef Shim’s ass today, but I’ll cheer for him anyway.” 

“I won’t expect anything less,” Yunho says, but when Changmin looks up, it’s to find Yunho grinning, really grinning, at Kyuhyun. 

His eyes are all crinkled up. His teeth are very white. 

“Feel better?” Yunho asks, all soft and indulgent, and Changmin blinks before he realises that Yunho is directing the question -and the tone- at him. 

“Yes,” he manages. 

 

--

 

After too little time together where there was a lot of waving but not enough catching up, the Sing! Idol contestants get corralled, and the actual audience are allowed in. 

People start seating themselves, and there’s a low buzz of excited chatter in the air. At times, it gets interrupted by laughter, and fan chants. 

The full seventeen of Sing! Idol’s contestants, minus the top three, are seated in a separate section, just next to the Judges’ Table. They turn to wave at the audience every now and then, to raucous cheers; and cheer loudly themselves, as the judges enter and take their places. 

Hyunmoo is centre-stage, looking dapper in a suit, his mic in his hands. 

The crew give okay signs upon performing the final checks to their equipment. 

At stage right, Changmin stands, Yunho’s arm around his shoulder and Amber’s arm around his waist, and his heart in his throat. 

One of the assistant producers is holding up a slate and going, “hot set in five, four, three, two, and we’re live!” 

 

--

 

It goes miraculously smooth after that. It's a live telecast, yet. By some stroke of luck, Changmin doesn’t stammer. 

Even though he blushes twice whe Hyunmoo interviews him right before his first performance, at least there are people loudly cheering his name. Changmin thinks he can hear Kyuhyun’s hoots. 

They draw lots to perform for the first Quickfire. Amber is going first, then him, and then Yunho. 

She’s striking today, in teal hair and leather trousers, so everyone is surprised when she brings a bar stool in the middle of the stage, massively enlarged for today’s performances, and sits down to give an intimate performance of a soulful ballad in Mandarin.

Her voice is typically more alto but she’s clearly pushing herself today. Changmin doesn’t understand Mandarin, but the ballad itself spins a melodic tale of heartbreak that sounds surprisingly uplifting at times. 

He’s unsurprised, after, when Kyuhyun tells him that the original singer for the ballad Amber had performed this round is one and same person as the artiste they had covered together for the Duet Challenge. 

Her performance ends to whistles and applause. The audience votes immediately, to give her a moderately high score. Changmin’s surprised to realise that the Judges, as well as the past Sing! Idol contestants are also included in the tally. 

Amber waits, right before stage left, while it’s his turn to go up to stage. 

Changmin goes out under the studio lights, and bows to shouts of his name, and applause. His hands are sweaty around his mic; so much that he’s making the handle slippery.

“I chose this song to kick off the Quickfire,” Changmin tells Hyunmoo, and the audience, “because in a way, I think it tells of my journey with Sing! Idol, and how everyone has helped pushed me till today. It’s also been one of my favourite songs since it was released eight years ago.”

A bunch of schoolgirls in the second row band together to shriek at that moment, “Sing rock again, Changmin!”

There are answering hoots of approval, and laughter, that only swell in sound when Changmin points at them, and nods.  

“And the song title is?” Queries Hyunmoo in a high jovial shout.

“The Beginning, by ONE OK ROCK,” Changmin answers, and smiles blindly into the audience as they start screaming properly.

Above him, the stage lights flare on in a shining arc. 

He brings his arm up to croon a deliberately raspy “just give me a reason, to keep my heart beating” into his mic, before the bassist joins in for the first notes in the introduction. 

 

--

 

So Changmin’s given an alarmingly high score that even he does a double take at. 

It’s higher than Amber’s. 

Anticipation and joy and anxiety make up the giant mutant butterflies warring in his stomach. His hands are making his mic, still clutched by his side, sweaty. 

It means it’s very likely that he’ll have a chance to perform at least one other song, especially if Yunho’s performance blows both him and Amber out of the water.

And blow them out of the water Yunho does. 

He’s doing dance for the first Quickfire, but he’s also got actual motorcyclists revving onto the stage. His outfit makes sense now. 

Yunho’s footwork is quick and fancy, and his voice sure and steady; climbing lush into a high note even as a lone racer spins his motorcycle around Yunho in quick twists, a growling counterpoint to Yunho’s own sharp pirouettes. 

Changmin thinks his mouth is wide open at the whole spectacle.

When he finishes, the crowd roars. Yunho’s not even breathing hard, much.

He scores but a point less than the full score.

 

--

 

Yunho’s through to the finale of Sing! Idol.

 

--

 

Changmin grabs at him when he comes off-stage, too rattled to even feel shy. He knows Amber’s right behind them. He knows there are cameras around, of course there are cameras around, it’s the semi-final. 

But that doesn’t matter. Nothing else matters.

Up close, there’s a shimmer of sweat across Yunho’s face, and he’s breathing slightly faster than normal. 

Looking at him, Changmin has a bit of whiplash, or double vision. This is the same man who introduced his mother to Changmin and who ate his food with continuous praises and who is a horrid mess in the kitchen. Even after that strenuous performance, Yunho’s biker jacket still sits perfectly on him, and his hair is still coiffed and slicked back with the wettish look it started out with and his eyes are bright and more cat-like than usual outlined in pristine kohl and he looks so alive.

“That was amazing,” Changmin tells him, holding on tight. “You’re amazing.

“Thank you,” Yunho says, his own hands tight around Changmin’s upper arms. His smile is slightly embarrassed. “I’m sorry, though. I loved your The Beginning. I’m sorry. I- It means you need to do the second round to get to the final-”

“I don’t care,” Changmin says, fervent. “I don’t care. I don’t care. That was a great performance.

There are words lodged in his throat now, through the months and months of knowing Yunho and practicing with Yunho and learning from Yunho and competing with Yunho. 

There are words that he thinks about sometimes, fleetingly when he’s practising, when he’s at stage left watching Yunho, when he himself has walked off after a performance that the audience seems to like. 

There are words that he doesn’t dare to ruminate on for too long, because he’s always felt that he isn’t worthy and it’s a little bit like stealing the dreams and ambitions of the other contestants, because this was never Changmin’s dream, not really. 

Not like how it is for them, the rest of the contestants who joined Sing! Idol. 

Not like how it is for Yunho.

Shim Changmin is a cook. 

Changmin is good at cooking, and feeding people. He’s lucky that it’s his dream, his passion and his job. 

It’s the first great love of his life; food is. Just like how the stage and dance is Yunho’s. It doesn’t seem fair to have another dream after that, to try and steal another’s. 

He lets himself say the words now, to the second great love of his life, on the cusp to the second half of the semi-final.

He lets himself finally give voice to them, after months and months.

“Wait for me,” he tells Yunho now, fiercely. His fingers are clutching grooves into Yunho’s leather jacket. “I’ll stand on stage opposite you. Wait for me at the final. I want to sing against you.”

Yunho’s looking at him. Maybe the cameramen are filming. Maybe not.

Changmin doesn’t care. Yunho’s eyes are on him, and that’s enough.  

“Okay,” Yunho utters. His mien is serious, but his eyes are crinkled into crescent moons. “Okay. I’ll see you at the final. Don’t make me wait too long.” 

 

--

 

I'll risk everything if it's for you

A whisper into the night

Telling me it's not my time and don't give up

I've never stood up before this time

でも 譲れないもの

握ったこの手は離さない

-- THE BEGINNING.

 

Chapter Text

 

“Let’s go.” 

-- SHIM Changmin (32), chef, backstage interview snippet for Ep 14 the Semi-Final, second round. 


“This is it.” 

-- JUNG Yunho (34), choreographer, live studio interview for Ep 15 the Sing! Idol Finale. 


 

Previously on Sing! Idol,

Semi-Final winner: YUNHO

 

He turns from Yunho, to see Amber with her eyebrows raised and her gaze direct. Their cameramen are huddled behind her like a trio of hump-backed crows, in their black crew uniforms with their cameras propped up on their shoulders.

Just like that, Changmin deflates. “Er-”

Amber just smiles. 

There’s nothing hostile in her expression, but she’s also grinning very, very widely. 

Changmin suppresses a pulse of apprehension, and keeps his back straight. 

A line of sweat is trickling down the back of his neck, down into the not-quite-itchiness of the sequins lining his vest, beneath the jacket.

“Is this where I say something trite and suitably dramatic, like ‘you’ll have to go through me first’?” She darts a glance to the side at the numerous lenses aimed at them, lightning-fast, and turns back to Changmin again. 

Her teeth flash under the pen-lights of the cameras, beams of white light to better illuminate the dim alcoves that make up back-stage. “Because you’ll have to go through me first.”

Changmin meets her gaze, and lets himself smile back at her. “Let’s go.”

 

--

 

Changmin’s styling team has half an hour to get him freshened up for the second round. There isn’t much of a wardrobe change; just a switch in jackets, which Yoonju had insisted on when Changmin had first unveiled his song choice to her and the producers. 

Even without a wardrobe change, the adrenaline and exertion in performing a rock song means Changmin’s nearly soaked through with perspiration. They shove him into the showers with stringent instructions that he’s only allowed a three minute shower and for the love of God, Changmin, don’t wash your hair.

He emerges in the tee and exercise trousers they chucked at him, slightly befuddled, only to be pressed back in the makeup chairs and then he’s treated to the very strange experience of having his sweat-drenched hair washed and blown dried and styled when the makeup artists work on his face again.

The ladies are fast, but Changmin’s twitchy with anxiety, because he can’t do much in the chair. 

“Can I practise my song?” He asks, when Hyeyoung is tweaking the ends of his eyebrows with a brow pencil, muttering “why do you not maintain the grooming of these on your own too, what a crime.”

 “No,” Yoonju says, walking past with the jacket she wants Changmin to be in, cradled in her arms and perfectly pressed.

“Yes,” Hyeyoung murmurs, hand steady. “If you mean singing it while seated. If you mean getting up to actually practise it, I will stab you in the eye with this pencil.”

“Ten minutes,” Jooyoung interjects, poking his head in. He’s gone before he’s even finished talking.

Yoonju makes a growl in her throat. “Let him up to change, first. Unless you want him on national television like that. We’ll all be fired.”

“It’ll make for good ratings,” one of the assistant hair stylists volunteers, and shrinks when both Yoonju and Hyeyoung bend identical venomous glares upon her. 

Miraculously enough, they’re ready with three minutes to spare. Changmin’s dressed and styled again, standing in the little area right after the door to the studio. 

On stage, Hyunmoo is engaged in banter with Yunho, who’s seated in a chair like the Judges’, just by the section containing the past contestants. It’s looking like an interview of sorts, and the others are given mics to speak as well.

Taeyeon’s holding onto the mic now, but Changmin’s too nervous to properly focus on what she’s saying. 

He runs the steps through his head again, hands mimicking the memorised movements. 

Changmin can’t quite stop himself from bouncing a little on his heels. 

He swallows, hands clutched tight around his cap prop.  

Amber is next to him. They don’t speak to each other. 

But right before Hyunmoo cues them on stage, he looks at her, and she him.

They shake hands, very firmly. 

 

--

 

Hyunmoo makes them play gawi-bawi-bo again, like the PK Challenge, to determine who goes first. That was but a month back. Back then, it had been Amber and Changmin too. 

This time, Amber wins.

She lifts her chin and smirks at him challengingly. “Changmin should go first.”

He lets out a breath, and bows at her, to cheering from the audience. 

 

-- 

 

The executive producers had raised their eyebrows when he first shared to them the second song he wanted to prepare for the semi-final. 

Jihwan’s busy making sure his hands are steady on the camera, even as his jaw slackens, too.

“I see,” Soyoung says, after a long pause. The three of them exchange glances with each other. It feels significant, although Changmin can’t quite understand what they’re antsy about. “And this is your decision? Made solely by yourself?”

“Yes?” Changmin offers, confused. Youngjin coughs.

Changmin looks at him, and it comes to him, then: “Yunho didn’t influence me to do this.”

“We didn’t say that,” Youngmin is quick to interject, but Changmin pushes on. 

“Really,” he says earnestly. “If anything, it was Jaewon who did have an influence on this.”

“Oh?” Soyoung leans forward. Jihwan perks up a little.

“Everyone always seems to like it better when I try to dance,” Changmin shrugs, and scratches at the back of his neck. “That’s what he said, whenever I ask him for advice. You three, too. You get a lot more animated when I fall over during practice and netizens clip a thousand GIFs from the slow-motion edits of the footage.”

They have nothing to say to that. Youngjin looks a little embarrassed, but Soyoung and Youngmin just shoot identical smirks at him. 

“It makes for good television,” Youngmin spreads his hands. 

“I know,” Changmin nods. “That’s why I, yeah.” 

The three of them give hums of agreement, but it’s Soyoung who seems to feel that she should offer him a final warning. “It’s rather dangerous to do that in the semi-final, though.”

All of them pause, and Changmin smiles at her, while she huffs a long-suffering sigh. “I didn’t mean to make that pun.”

Jihwan’s giggling to himself, shoulders shaking behind his camera.

 

--

 

Changmin goes back onto the stage, and unhooks the one brass button holding his jacket shut. 

It’s vaguely pilot, or police-like. He doesn’t want to really think about how or where Yoonju got her inspiration for it, but it pairs well enough with the concept she’s worked out together with him. 

There’s a loud shout from the general direction of the Judges’ Table, “Changminnie fighting!”

It’s Yunho. The crowd titters. 

Changmin bows, and waits for the iconic synthesizer beat to start.

There’s a pause of absolute silence, the audience likely confused, until he flips the cap in his hands onto his head, and enunciates lowly into the headset hooked around his face, “the girl was dangerous.”

He ducks back beneath the edge of it, so that only the tip of his nose, and mouth show. 

They get it, then. The screaming starts.

 

--

 

In the aftermath of it, Changmin doesn’t feel bad.

He’s tried his very best, and even though it was a song choice where he barely sang, and he knows he’s only done the choreography decently, he feels tentatively good about it. 

At least it has been a surprise to the audience, and they seem to have embraced the fact that he’s tried

Hyunmoo’s gaping in exaggerated shock at him after the song ends, and they do a quick post-performance interview. 

Changmin barely remembers how it goes, and he’s still panting into his mic. 

Except that Hyunmoo keeps shouting “What a surprise! It’s only to be expected of our dark horse! Underdog! Dark horse!” in his face, and is clearly trying to think of more animal metaphors for him whilst the judges pretty much agree with his comment. 

BoA locks eyes with him, and says into her mic, “I’m proud of you, Changmin.” 

He faces her and bows low at his waist to that, holding his position to the audience’s cheers. He keeps at it until Hyunmoo’s patting discreetly at his back, and he straightens to see the assistant producers making the sign for overrun, beyond the cameras.

 

--

 

It’s a fight that’s almost easy. 

Amber’s song choice is a rock ballad stripped down, and it’s no competition for the surprise Changmin’s just pulled. 

She knows it, and the audience knows it, but yet she still gives her all. 

Her voice soars, raspy and delicate, as she sits on a high stool, to deliver a near-acoustic rendition of One More Light. There is no other accompaniment than a lone piano, and one backup singer. 

In the wings, Changmin mouths along, there are things that we can have, but can't keep.

 

--

 

The votes are announced. 

Changmin is through to the finale of Sing! Idol.

It’s him versus Yunho, then.

 

--

 

He hugs Amber hard, when they’re gathered together back on stage. It’s just right before they break to prep for the finale, which is slanted for a mere six hours later.

In the background, the audience is alternating between screeching about the impending last challenge, and moaning that they have to leave. The members lucky enough to win a seat for the morning may not have that fate repeated, in the balloting of audience seats for the finale. 

Changmin hears none of this, clutching tight as he is onto Amber. 

He’s through to the finale of Sing! Idol. 

There’s a complicated mess of emotions in his stomach. The giant butterflies are starting up again. He’s happy. 

He’s happy! And yet, and yet.

And yet.

He’s through to the finale of Sing! Idol. 

She isn’t.

Amber grips him back equally hard, and stands on her toes to whisper in her ear, “I’m counting on you to win this.”

He draws back in surprise at that, blinking at her. Next to them, Hyunmoo is engaged in energetic banter with Yunho. “The winner is Yunho.”

“Can you see the future, now?” She teases, even as there are murmurs from the audience, as more people realise how close their heads are, bent towards each other. Maybe the fans are forming a new pairing in their heads. “How are you so sure it’s him?”

Surprise makes Changmin’s arms slacken around her. “It’s going to be him. He’ll win.”

Changmin’s fine with that.

He’s through to the finale! Of Sing! Idol!

He’s a finalist of Sing! Idol.

He’s in the finale of Sing! Idol!

“Really,” Amber says. 

But then Hyunmoo’s squeezing between them, laughing and looking just very slightly frantic, so they turn back to the cameras.

Changmin smiles and nods and smiles some more before they’re finally released to prepare for the finale. 

 

--

 

They’re guided backstage, him and Yunho, whilst Amber’s whisked off in another direction. 

Changmin cranes his neck at the nest of people she’s been herded towards, and spots Seohyun and Minho, and what looks like almost all of the production crew.

A breath by his ear; and Yunho murmurs, “I think they’ve got a live talk show segment thing that’ll be happening during the finale, in the breaks between us singing.”

“Hi!” Changmin jerks back around. The mutated giant butterflies flutter. “Hi.”

“Hi,” Yunho’s smiling at him, warm and teasing and affectionate. “That was quite a move you pulled.”

This man. This person. This… His friend. That he loves. He’ll be able to sing opposite his friend later, in a matter of hours.

He loves. This man. His friend. He.

His friend. Yunho. 

Changmin loves him, and this scares him and makes him exhilarated at the same time because he’s getting to properly go up against him in a little while and. 

This man. He.

Even in the privacy of his own head, Changmin knows he’s broken himself, just a little.

He shoves the entire complicated mess of emotions into some dark dusty part of his brain and promises himself that he’ll allow a panic attack in private later. 

When all of this is over and there aren’t cameras and Yunho is the winner of Sing! Idol and right, he should stop smiling at Yunho like an idiot and start responding to him. 

It's with some difficulty, but he pulls his focus back to his surroundings. 

Yunho’s still smiling very patiently at him, a hand hovering behind his back to ensure Changmin hasn’t walked into a door or a wall. 

“Was it okay?” Changmin blurts, conscious of the cameras following them, as they traipse behind Jooyoung in turn. He tries to keep his body angled from the lenses, and his voice low, so that this part of the footage is not quite usable, since Yunho and he have gotten their performance mics removed from them, and the crew hasn’t gotten to them yet, to wire them up. “Did you- how did you find it?”

Yunho sees what he’s doing and shifts too, so he’s walking while turning towards Changmin, leaning ever so slightly away from Myunghwan’s sight. “I think you shocked us all. Tiffany couldn’t stop shrieking, it was funny how the audience near her were all judging her.” 

“No, I mean,” Changmin fumbles, belatedly anxious, “did you like it.” 

“Oh,” Yunho says, and reaches out a hand, to grip at the crook of Changmin’s neck. “Of course I did. You practiced very hard, and it showed. It was good, Changminnie. You were good.”

The praise adds to the flip-flop of emotions running through Changmin, but he manages to smile through that, back at Yunho. “I did practice, I…”

He nearly walks into Jooyoung’s back while still speaking to Yunho, something that, judging from the snickers emitting from Jihwan and Myunghwan, they did get on camera. 

“I thought we trained you for the cameras,” Jooyoung snorts as he ducks away to the side in front of one of the bigger waiting rooms that’s usually dressed up for press and backstage interviews. 

He’s throwing them an unreadable smile that Changmin doesn’t quite comprehend. He’s got the door open, and they’re both through it, and then Changmin understands why Jooyoung was smiling.

“Big Brother!” Thing #1 and #2 chorus. The surround sound ambush nearly gives Changmin a heart attack.

He takes a reflexive step back, and bumps into Yunho. 

Who places a hand on his arm. To ensure Changmin’s balance, perhaps. 

Changmin looks down at Yunho’s hand. Then he looks back up, at the twin beaming faces of his little sisters, and a cold sweat breaks across the back of his neck, as:

“What is this? Why are you not greeting your mother? Unfilial boy. Why did I break my body to beget a great big lump like you?”

She’s done what she’s been threatening all these months. His mother is at Sing! Idol.

 

--

 

Technically, their nearest and dearest (numbering three pax each, as the producers helpfully inform after Changmin gapes and Yunho laughs in surprise) are at Sing! Idol. 

Jaeni and Hyejin hover behind the wall of cameras, and scribble instructions non-stop on their notepads, like ‘SMILE’, ‘Don’t look so shocked’, ‘Greet your own folks first, you can say hi to each other’s families later when we change tapes’, and ‘SMILE, CHANGMIN’.

Changmin registers vaguely that Yunho’s got people surrounding him too, including Mother, whom he’ll be sure to greet later. 

First. He has to settle things with the woman who actually birthed him from her loins over three decades ago.

Who is, currently, gazing at him unsmilingly, to the glee of Jihwan and Jooyoung, huddled off by the side. Thing #2 is actually filming them blatantly with her smartphone whilst Thing #1 is craning her neck by the door.

Changmin decides to tackle the easiest battle first. Without taking his eyes from his mother, he asks, pleasantly enough, “Sooyeon?”

“Yeah?” Thing #1 is distracted, and nearly falling through the open doorway, with how far she’s leaning out.

“Who are you looking for,” Changmin says. He thinks he sounds calm. 

The shock of seeing the three most important women in his life at once has certainly gone far in settling his happy disbelief that he’s actually in the finale of Sing! Idol. 

Changmin doesn’t know who has the bright idea of putting his mother in front of cameras, but he suspects the three executive producers have had a heavy hand on this. 

He just wishes that there was more of a heads up, but knowing the three of them, well. Even if he voices this wish, he doesn’t doubt Soyoung will look him in the eye and go laconically, “it makes good television.”

“BoA,” Thing #1 returns easily. “Look, I’m even in her fanclub t-shirt. Do you think she’ll sign my back for me?”

Changmin tears his eyes away from the impromptu staring contest he’s done with his mother -and which he just lost- to erupt, “you what?” 

He takes a second look at Sooyeon and yes, she’s got a yellow t-shirt on, with “JUMPING BOA” scrawled across her back in bold print, to his horror.

Jooyoung is having a field day just next to Jihwan, muffling his laughter behind his hands. 

He whips his head back to his mother and Thing #1; who are thankfully dressed in normal people clothing, although his mother’s hair is… bigger and more professionally coiffed than its normal wont. 

“Did you go to the hair salon to get your hair professionally set? It's big,” his mouth decides to say.

Hyejin hops on a foot behind Jihwan, with her notepad held up to her forehead: NOOOOO BE NICE TO YOUR MOTHER THE NATION IS WATCHING.

His mother’s mouth crumples into a frown. “You mannerless little shit, is this how you greet your mother?”

At that, he looks reflexively in Jihwan’s direction. His mother does too, after a pause.

“We’ll censor that,” Jooyoung reassures.

They go back to eyeing each other.

“Hello, Mother.” Changmin tries again. “Did you go to the hair salon. Your hair is big.”

She slides him a disgusted glare. “Did a dog eat your conscience? Your hairstylist did this, and she says I look very well indeed.”

“Much more deceptive-looking than usual,” he hums after a while, “and I learnt all about being an uncouth fishwife at your knee.”

“Insolent little cur,” she jeers, coming closer.

“Again, I have learnt much under your tutelage in my formative years,” Changmin smiles at her, which is when she actually comes forward to hit him very soundly on the arm. 

He yelps theatrically, because experience says that she’ll hit him for real if he doesn’t give a satisfactory reaction. 

Jihwan looks like he’s struck footage gold. The smirk on his face is so wide that it must hurt.

“Stupid boy!” his mother hisses at Changmin, haughty and imperious. “Don’t smile like that. It turns your face into a horrid mess.” 

“Once, coming out from your house, your neighbours mistook me for you, just less wrinkled, and taller,” Changmin says pleasantly, and laughs as she hits him again. 

They look up from their banter to see the whole waiting room starting at them in either undisguised shock or blatant amusement. 

Hyejin gestures like a madwoman to her notepad, DON’T BLAME US IF YOU GET BACKLASH FOR SHITTING ON YOUR OWN MOTHER LIKE THAT. 

Jooyoung is crouched on the floor, laughing quietly into a fist. 

Thing #2 hasn’t stop filming, and Thing #1 has stopped craning her head to come next to Thing #2 to murmur instructions, “no, zoom up closer, look, you need to get both their faces in frame. Look, they’re both making identical expressions, this is hilarious, we need to put this on Snow.”

Yunho’s got three people with him as well, and all of them are staring at Changmin and Changmin’s mother. There’s Mother, and a girl who looks too remarkably like Yunho to be anything other than his (elder? younger?) sister, and a tallish, rather handsome man.

His boyfriend?

No, it can’t be. Yunho would have said something, especially after the conversation they had in January. Maybe it’s a friend. But the producers did say ‘nearest and dearest’ and they hauled in Changmin’s mother and Changmin’s sisters and Yunho never did mention he had a brother and the man doesn’t look quite like him anyway so maybe that is his boyfriend, it’s all right, Changmin’s only a friend, maybe Yunho doesn’t feel comfortable talking about it despite their chat and ow, Changmin’s been hit on the arm again.

“Ow,” Changmin says, looking back at his own mother.

“Goodness,” Changmin’s mother sniffs, smoothing at her coiffure. “Look at how you make me go on. Disgusting boy.”

“Really now, Mother, do you wish to expose this side of you on national television,” Changmin offers jovially, and dodges when she tries to box his ears. “If you hit me too hard, I think my stylist will want to hit you then.”

“No,” Thing #1 pipes up. “Isn’t she the one who’s always beating you up in the behind-the-scenes snippets? Maybe she’ll help Mother smack you.” 

Hyejin looks at Jaeni, who’s over on the other side writing instructions to Yunho and his folks, and throws up her own notepad in silent exasperation. 

Before this ridiculous line of conversation can continue further, Jooyoung claps his hands.

It doesn’t have quite the impact when the three executive producers do as such.

“Are you trying to channel Soyoung,” Yunho frowns from across the room, but his gaze is twinkling. 

Jooyoung has evidently decided to pretend he can’t hear Yunho, even though Myunghwan and Jihwan are both swinging their cameras between the two of them. “We hope you guys like the surprise we’ve prepared for you!”

“What surprise,” Changmin scratches his head.

“You,” Jooyoung falters, and gesticulates wildly. “This? The surprise visit from your nearest and dearest? And that you’re having lunch with them? Which we are catering?”

Against Changmin’s will, his nose wrinkles at the mention of ‘catered lunch’. Also, “shouldn’t we be practicing?”

Jooyoung just rolls his eyes and makes a slashing gesture at both cameramen. “Editors, please take note. We’re not using this section of the raws. Too boring.”

Laughing, Yunho comes over to stand next to Changmin. His shoulder knocks against Changmin’s while he’s grinning at Jooyoung, “sorry, sorry. We’ll behave.”

“I always behave,” Changmin says.

The mutated butterflies in his stomach are back with a vengeance. They possess his body, to lean him into Yunho’s side slightly.

 

--

 

They’re being ushered to lunch. But before that, Changmin suppresses the burn of curiosity in his stomach (who is the man chatting so familiarly with Mother?) and introduces Yunho officially to his own mother. 

To his utter astonishment, his mother takes to Yunho and Yunho’s, like a duck to water.

“Mother, this is Yunho,” he starts, and blinks. His mother gives Yunho an actual smile that she usually reserves for her top students. “You’re even more handsome in real life than on television.”

“What,” Changmin says. He’s confused.

“Oh,” Yunho replies, polite. 

He bows a deep bow at the waist, all ninety-degrees straight-backed dignity, and holds the bow for five too-long seconds. Changmin reaches over and pulls ineffectually at the back of Yunho’s jacket, because it’s just his mother, and not the President. 

After too long, Yunho’s straightening, and still smiling. “Thank you so much, Auntie- may I call you auntie?”

“You can call me anything you like,” his mother purrs -purrs!- and gives him her hand to shake, which Yunho does. 

They smile at each other, all beaming satisfaction, and Changmin’s mother goes, “thank you for letting our Changmin meet you in this lifetime. He’s learnt a lot. Thank you for taking care of him through the challenges, I do follow them, you know, every single one of the episodes.”

What,” Changmin says again.

“Lunch!” Jooyoung cheers, slightly tight around the eyes, because it’s evident that no one in the room is interested in following his schedule. The cameramen are taking this chance to change tapes. In the corner, Thing #1 and Thing #2 are exchanging Kakao handles with the girl that looks remarkably like Yunho, while the man -whom Changmin can’t quite still discern his relationship to Yunho- leans against the wall next to her. 

“My younger sister,” Yunho offers, when he sees where Changmin’s gaze has landed. “And my best friend. Those are your sisters too, I guess?”

He bends a toothy grin at Changmin’s mother. “You all have the same eyes and nose. Auntie looks like she's your older sister.”

Changmin stares in shock as his mother titters. Titters! 

And now she’s reaching out to pat Yunho -gently!- on the arm, unlike the vicious way she tends to backhand Changmin on the same body part. “You’re not just good at performing and singing. That pretty voice is good at giving compliments too! Oh, thank you so much for befriending this uncivilised boy. It's his honour.”

“Auntie, Changminnie is so sweet and nice and smart, it’s my pleasure. You’ve raised him really well, you should be proud,” Yunho is all earnestness and charm, and he’s smiling down at Changmin’s mother and patting her on her hand. 

“He’s all right, I guess,” Changmin’s mother allows airily, without looking away from Yunho. 

Changmin doesn’t know who to stare at more. Yunho, his mother, or the man -Yunho's best friend? Shouldn't that be Hyukjae?- in the corner.

“Hello!” Jooyoung raises his voice even more, when it’s cleared he’s still being ignored. “Lunch! You only have an hour before you’re back in final rehearsals for two hours because you only have one-and-a-half hours for final hair and makeup!”

That, more than anything, is enough to galvanise him and Yunho into moving their families along, and for Changmin to make his mother stop flirting.

 

--

 

Lunch has been had. Changmin suffers a second near-heart attack when it turns out that it’s lunch together with all three of the judges, and he has to witness BoA meeting his mother. 

All of them are gathered at a very large round table, and someone in the crew was evil enough to sit his mother next to BoA.

They’re both some places diagonal to Changmin’s seat, so he can only watch on helplessly. 

Shockingly, there is no bloodshed nor fits of hysterics. Although his mother does go very, very quiet and her eyes are very, very bright. 

BoA just smiles and smiles and there are hugs and his mother goes very red and the producers have to lead her away “for a little lie-down”, as Youngjin explains.

The rest of them try to hide their amusement, while BoA is apologetic. But she recovers her composure quickly enough when Thing #1 all but forces her with beseeching simpers to sign her Jumping BoA t-shirt, and even provides a fabric marker to smoothen the process.

“Your eyes are just like Changmin’s, all lethal,” BoA informs her, to Changmin’s sputtering consternation across the table. 

 

--

 

Changmin makes his greetings to Yunho’s mother while his own is still off… somewhere trying to be calm.

“Mother,” he goes to her post-lunch, and apologetic. Yunho’s somewhere off the side of the room and conferring with the producers on something or other, and Changmin's own sisters are amusing themselves by bribing(?) Jihwan to show them some of the raw footage he's recorded. “I’m so sorry it took me so long to greet you.”

“Darling boy, hello!” she’s dimpling up at him, Yunho’s grin bright on her face, and she’s got both of her hands around his. Yunho’s younger sister and the best friend whom Yunho still hasn’t elaborated on is next to her and gazing at them, curiosity written all over on their faces. “Don’t worry about it, you were sat all the way around the other side. You look so handsome. Good luck! You’ll win this!”

“Ah,” he shies back, startled, “no, that’s- you’re very kind! Thank you! Yunho will win this.”

“Goodness, darling,” she gives him a mock-frown, “whoever heard of someone admitting his rival will win, without a fight like that. Chin up!”

The way she rebukes him is so similar to Yunho that Changmin shrinks slightly, and nods, and she laughs and pats him on the back. 

“Besides, I’m sure your mother will prefer it if you actually work at winning,” she suggests, all sweet and sly. Changmin nods along before he registers what she’s saying.

“Oh!” He blinks at her, thrown off, “have you two met?”

“We were in a room together for three hours while waiting for you and Yunho, dear,” she raises her eyebrows and giggles. “Of course we’ve met. She's lovely.”

“Is she,” Changmin says unthinkingly, and then he ’s the one laughing when Yunho’s mother gasps and taps him on his much-abused arm. “Dear! Your mother is very proud of you, you know.”

“Yes, er,” he’s scuffing at the back of his neck in embarrassment, while she blinks up at him. His face is on fire and his ears are burning. “Yes, I er, I do know. We just talk like that to each other sometimes, sorr-”

She takes pity on him. “The two of you are very sweet together.”

“Thank you,” Changmin says again on rote, and with some desperation, welcomes the relief of Yunho coming over with a brisk, “Changminnie, come on, we’ve got to go rehearse, bye Mum, see you later, love you, come along, Changminnie.”

 

--

 

It’s final rehearsals, and a blur of checking marks and mics and preparations and ensuring their in-ears are tweaked to a volume just so , and Changmin running his three songs for the finale again and again in his head. 

He would like to do that in actuality too, but the producers have forbidden it. They take his handheld mic away,  after he runs through his song choices four times consecutively, with the studio’s live backing band. 

“Rehearse them in your head if you must,” Youngmin says crossly, when they all but drag him off of stage so the crew can re-set for Yunho’s final dry run, “but no, you’re not singing through them for all four hours till the telecast. We need you to conserve your voice for when you and Yunho go live!” 

“Go live,” Changmin repeats faintly, once again being reminded that he’ll be in the finale of Sing! Idol in a matter of hours. And then he’s hustled back to the dressing rooms, because he and Yunho aren’t allowed to watch each other’s rehearsals, and Yoonju walks him through all three of his outfits again for final tweaks.

It’s the first time he’s seen them in their final form, without her tacking stitches and bits and pieces of fabric sticking out here and there, because she was still making her final edits up till the previous night. 

“Wow,” is all he can offer, after a long period of awestruck silence. “I just… Wow.”

“Ha, yeah, kid,” Yoonju sighs, brushing imaginary lint off of her shoulder. “I’m amazing, aren’t I?”

“You are,” he says honestly, and smiles at her when she looks thrown off by that. 

“Well, yes,” she blusters, and comes over to pull hard on his ear. “You’re not so bad yourself. Go on now, get. Try them on so I can see if I have to take any seams in.” 

 

--

 

“I understand the thought you put behind this,” he offers some minutes later and with tentative caution through the dressing room door, “but couldn’t you have put sides to this thing?”

Now that the tacking stitches are removed, the lack of sides to the jumper is more obvious. It’s all just... empty space. 

There’s an irritated sigh filtering through the door. 

Yoonju goes in slow deliberation, “which one are you trying on now?”

Changmin looks down at himself. “The third outfit.”

“What about the other two?” A tapping sound just outside the door. Likely Yoonju’s shoe-clad toes on the floor, Changmin thinks. 

He clears his throat. “The other two are okay, I think. They’re comfortable. It’s the same pair of boots for all three outfits, right?”

There’s a pause. Yoonju goes carefully, “you don’t have a problem with the collar?”

“The-” Changmin looks at the prop in question lying innocuously on the blue coat he’s just shed. “It’s a choker, right? For the second set?”

Another pause, and Yoonju says, all cheerful, “sure! If you say so.” 

He wisely decides to not pursue that, not when she’s rapping on the door and going, “so it’s just the third outfit? That one is the simplest, you know.”

“Yeah,” he stares at the mirror, and lifts his arm, and gets startled once again by the expanse of ribs and chest the movement reveals. “Rather too simple, maybe?”

“Are you questioning my design aesthetic?” Yoonju sounds so offended that Changmin cringes back a little. Just in case she can open the door, even though the lock is bolted from the inside. “No!”

A menacing “good” drifts in through the wood. 

Changmin lowers his arms. His abs vanish, to his relief, covered once again by sturdy black wool. “I guess it’s not so bad if I keep my arms down.”

And the rest of it does look good. 

Then again, anything Yoonju makes for him usually is, because she’s so talented. Not that Changmin will tell her as such. She is scary enough without him stroking her ego.  

“There you go,” Yoonju’s back to being cheerful again. “Now come out so I can do a final review of those sides.” 

“You mean the lack of these sides,” Changmin can’t resist. 

“I mean I’ll box your ears,” Yoonju threatens.

 

--

 

Youngmin comes by to relay the time.

“Two hours to live, everyone,” he shouts in ringing tones. He sticks his head into the waiting room that’s been assigned to Changmin’s styling team and him, and darts on with his words drifting behind him. “Hair and makeup now, chop chop, it’s live and we can’t be late!” 

“Wow. Two hours,” Changmin says numbly. 

His phone lies fingerprint-smudged in his hand and opened to his Notes function, where Changmin’s going through the lyrics of his song choices. The last thing he wants is to go on stage and then forget all his lyrics. Even though Yunho’s going to win, it doesn’t mean he should make a fool of himself on national television. Live.

Right. Fuck. It’s going to be a live telecast. The finale is going to be broadcast live.

He’s in the finale. Of Sing! Idol. 

Changmin is, against all odds and by some crazy twist of fate, a finalist.

He pinches himself hard on the arm at that thought, and breaks out into a cold sweat from the pain.

The mutated giant butterflies in his stomach wriggle, perky after he’s managed to forget about them, for just a little bit.

“Don’t sweat,” the hair stylists say in unison. He’s got three of them hovering over his head with hairbrushes and a blowdryer. “Don’t you dare sweat, or we’ll wash your hair again in an hour, see if we will.”

 

--

 

“One hour,” It’s Youngjin this time.

Changmin’s trying to practise his first song on his Taylor, but his fingers are sweaty and they keep slipping on the strings and it’s not helping that his eyes have to stay close as Hyeyoung draws eyeliner on him.

“Can you stop shaking?” Hyeyoung wants to know. “Shake more and I’ll really stab you in the eye, see if I don’t.”

His fingers press down on an G and slip down to a D instead, with a screechy twang. 

Stop sweating,” Yoonju orders in exasperation from somewhere behind him. “We need to get you into your first outfit in about ten minutes. Can you stop, I don’t know, secreting water?”

“Maybe we should stop feeding him tonics,” a junior makeup artist suggests.

“We can’t,” Jihwan interjects. “He needs to keep his voice warm. Go to the loo before you change.”

Changmin just keeps as still as he can, and sweats silently in the makeup chair. 

He clutches his Taylor in nerveless fingers, and wishes for time to either halt or speed up, instead of trickling by in such a slow, painful trot.

 

--

 

Before he knows it, it’s five minutes to broadcast, and Yunho and he are cooling their heels (not) just off-stage. 

It’s a different studio this time. Not their usual. Rather, it’s a larger one that the broadcast station usually reserves for their end-of-year award ceremonies. 

When Changmin had stood on stage for rehearsals a couple of hours ago, there was a distant part of him that shied away from how large the set is, and how many audience seats there are surrounding the wide expanse of hardwood and metal.

His heart is beating hard, rabbit-fast. Changmin’s actually faintly surprised it hasn’t thumped its way out of his rib cage yet.

Three hours more, he promises himself. Just three hours more and there’ll be time for a panic attack, when Yunho has won. He just needs to try his best to sing, and be normal, in the meantime. 

Beyond the set’s doors, there’s a roar of sound that says Hyunmoo is already working his magic on the crowd.

A gloved hand stretches in his line of sight, which has been aimed at the floor all this while. It wriggles its fingers at him. 

It means he has to look up and finally straight on at Yunho, instead of sneaking glances like he’s been doing the past quarter-hour.

He doesn’t quite dare to look directly at his friend.

The man opposite him looks both like and unlike Yunho at the same time. Changmin’s seen him dressed up for the competition before, and both dressed up and semi-dressed and fresh-faced right before the makeup artists get to him. Yunho and the stylists working on him have never been the type to stint on dramatic outfits and stylings. 

But today… 

Today, the only word that comes to Changmin’s mind is “majestic”. 

He’s got his hair brushed back from his forehead, and the makeup artists have got sharp black eyeliner expertly drawn on him, and they did something to make his gaze all hooded and domineering. His lips are wetter and pinker than they should be, under the fluorescent lights of the hallway. And all that’s only neck up.

Yunho’s looking like a Disneyland escapee again from neck down, except that it isn’t a fairytale prince, but a king that Changmin is staring at. 

There’s still inordinate amounts of embroidery and pleated gold thread and brass buttons involved in his looks. Changmin does a double-take. Are those rhinestones glittering at the collar, down to the higher cut of his black coat in front and going all the way down to the split tails at the back? 

At least he’s got a white shirt and tie on the inside, and his black trousers are normal enough, save for the self-same glittering that runs down the lines of his legs. 

Changmin can’t stop staring at those. They accentuate how long those legs are. 

Thanks to the rounds of promotional activities they did a few weeks ago, and crazy things that MCs make their guests do for ratings these days, Changmin knows their precise length and the fact that they are two centimetres longer(??) than his own.

It had tickled the MC and Amber and Kyuhyun more than it should have, because Changmin’s got a visible inch in height on Yunho. 

“The stylists went a bit crazy,” Yunho explains, slightly apologetically in response to Changmin’s silent ogling. 

“No,” Changmin blurts out, honest. “You look good.”

In contrast, Changmin himself is relatively dressed down, wearing only a simple black blazer and black trousers. Yoonju has paired that with a simple round-neck vest for him, and no shirt. 

His fingers are still sweaty around his guitar case, but that can’t be helped. 

“You don’t think I look like a military bandmaster?” Yunho asks.

Changmin laughs at that. And then he just keeps laughing.

When he finally lifts his head again, Yunho’s smiling at him. “Better?”

“Better,” Changmin manages, impossibly grateful. Yunho’s forever helping him. “Thank you. Again.”

Yunho doesn’t say anything else, but he strips his gloves off, to grip Changmin by the elbow of his blazer. 

The studio door opens.

One of the assistant producers barely glances at them, harried. He flaps a hand at them, and barks into his headset, “they’re with me. Thirty seconds to entrance.”

 

--

 

They draw lots. Yunho’s picked to go first.

‘Going first’, Hyunmoo explains for the benefit of the live studio audience that’s larger in number than what they’ve seen so far, means Yunho will get to perform each of his three song choices in three individual rounds, right before Changmin’s performances. 

In each round, after both competitors perform, the audience will be allowed to vote via the remote controllers paired to their seats, but the results will not be displayed. Instead, the wider audience viewing from their television screens and laptops and tablets around the country will also be able to cast their votes using their registered accounts at Sing! Idol’s official website, for a selected amount of time after each performance.

Once the pocket of time ends, that particular round of voting will be closed.

After the third and final round, all three rounds’ worth of votes will be tallied and revealed in one fell swoop to everyone in the studio- the audience, the two competitors, the judges, the rest of the Sing! Idol twenty, Hyunmoo himself- as well as the rest of the country. 

Thus, the inaugural winner of Sing! Idol will be born.

“Simple enough, yes? Yes!” Hyunmoo beams up at the audience, and they back at him. “Are you excited? Because I know I am!”

 

--

 

“Any last words,” Hyunmoo asks of them, “before we begin?”

Yunho smiles at him, and at the audience, and at the cameras “I never thought I’ll get this far, even though I want to. Of course I want to. But it’s never been a sure thing, so I’m happy I’m standing here tonight. Thank you. I’m just a boy chasing a childhood dream, so I just want to thank all of you, for allowing that.”

He bows, to much applause.

Changmin squeaks something out, when Hyunmoo turns to him. It probably pass muster, because Yunho turns to beam at him, and there’s clapping from the crowd.

He doesn't quite remember. It’s the finale of Sing! Idol.

 

--

 

He heads to stand next to the Judges’ table, where he ends up half-facing the audience and half-facing the stage. 

Several of his supporters in the audience had groaned loudly, when he had drawn the lot to go second.

Privately, Changmin likes it this way.

His position, just off the stage proper but still within the studio, allows him unprecedented access to watch Yunho as he performs.

Yunho’s first song is both a show-starter and a show-stopper, in every sense of the words. He’s got backup dancers, a shout-out to his dance academy, and there’s an infectious, almost military beat (Yunho’s joke earlier makes more sense now) and Yunho’s pirouetting and jumping and at one point his dancers even crouch down in a piling formation for him to stand on. 

“Drop it low,” Yunho snarls into his performance mic, taped to the side of his cheek.

His hands are ungloved. Changmin remembers with a start that Yunho never did put them on again, after they spoke, right before their cue to appear in the studio. 

There’s a gentle poke to his knee, discreet.

Changmin tears his eyes away from the stage and looks down, to where BoA’s still got a finger raised, her arm mostly hidden behind the Judges’ Table.

She’s the judge sitting closest to him, and within easy touching distance.

He stares at her blankly while she brings up her hands, as if to cough. 

Her mic is abandoned on the table. 

Behind her cupped palms, she says very very very softly, “close your mouth, Changmin.”

Changmin clicks his teeth together with a click. 

“Turn back,” she smiles, still murmuring into her knuckles. He reads it more from her lips than hear her say it.

Changmin turns back to the stage, and to Yunho.

 

--

 

It’s Changmin’s turn, after Yunho heads stage left whilst still bowing. 

“Oh, ho,” Hyunmoo says with undisguised glee. “Looks like our Chef Bambi is starting very differently!”

Twitching slightly at the nickname the nation's apparently decided he should have, Changmin just settles on his stool mutely. He adjusts the tuning pegs, and the mic stands, and tries for a smile. 

He can feel the very edges of his mouth trembling. He does his best to steady them, looking into the glaring flare of the stage lights, “this is the amuse-bouche.”

The audience answers that with another swell of applause. Thing #1 and Thing #2’s voices rise above the cacophony, “Chef Bambi cooks and sings better than all your daughters-in-law, South Korea! Fighting Shim Changmin!”

He can’t help but squint in confusion at the audience. That pulls a ripple of laughter from them.

“Please behave,” he says into the mic. Little traitors. He hopes his mother will box their ears. Though it is equally likely that she refrains from that, purely to vex him.

The laughter sounds again, when he shakes his head and bends over his Taylor, and pauses one, two beats, before he strums the first set of chords.

“Saying I love you,” he starts, fingers plucking out a melody that he’s played over and over, and over in the past weeks, “is not the words I want to hear from you.”

 

--

 

For the second round, Yunho’s in ripped blue jeans.

He’s looking unexpectedly playful with colourful trainers and a paint-splattered, washed-out denim jacket that shouldn’t work, because he’s got a plaid shirt beneath, and a t-shirt under that

On him, somehow it works. 

The second time he sings you’re in sexy blue skinny jeans while doing a beautifully flowing bodywave across the stage, Changmin catches Kyuhyun’s eye by pure accident. 

Next to him, Hyukjae is getting elbowed non-stop by Donghae.

Kyuhyun mouths words at him, exaggerated gesticulations that screw up his entire face. It can’t be anything good, so Changmin turns back to the stage before the cameras are onto them.

It’s no hardship anyway, because it’s Yunho performing. 

 

--

 

Changmin walks on stage to a “whoa!” from Hyunmoo.

He smiles ruefully back at the MC. He can’t even hide behind his hair now, so he ducks his head into a half-bow and straightens, making sure to not slouch and mar Yoonju’s creation with unnecessary creases. 

The choker -collar?- is a cool line of leather against his throat, when he swallows.

Behind him, his pianist takes her seat at the Yamaha grand that has been rolled on stage by the crew moments ago. 

Her dress is the same shade of blue as Changmin’s coat, and she’s the one that gets even more cheers from the crowd.

Changmin can feel himself grinning at that, proud. 

Pleased, he indicates to her with a wave of his hand to Hyunmoo, garnering a cry of “and who is this! What a surprise!” from the MC. 

“How are you, Wendy?” Hyunmoo meanders over to her, bowing theatrically with a hand out. She lays her hand on his while going demurely, “I am well, of course.”

The illusion is ruined when she throws her hands into the air the next second, “but still not as well as Changmin is! Right, guys?”

Hyped up, the audience indulges her with another cheer.

Changmin can feel his ears warming up. To stave off his own focus on the embarrassment, he steps on his mark, just off the side from where she and the piano are, and enunciates softly into the mic, “this is the main course.”

He’s not dancing for this round, because it’s a bit beyond him to remember two sets of choreography. But when he had recorded himself performing it and sent it to the Kakao group chat he has with the executive producers and judges days and days ago, BoA and Jaewon and even Jongkook agreed with his suggestion that he should be mobile and moving for this piece. 

Now, Wendy looks at him. 

At his nod, her fingers begin, staccato on the black keys, as the studio drummer joins in with an easy beat. 

In the middle of the piece, when Changmin comes right up to where the rest of the Sing! Idol twenty is sitting, and bends over to tell Taeyeon “I like it when you say don’t stop” lowly in English; she swats at him with an unimpressed glare. 

The audience laughs when he reels back, and she softens enough to curl the edge of her mouth at him, and offer a reluctant wave at the cameras. 

 

--

 

It’s fast becoming a blur of breathe, perform, breathe, perform, keep breathing

His hair is freshly-washed and blow-dried again. The hair stylists card gentle hands through it, to spike what passes off as his fringe now with some gel.

For the final round, Hyeyoung goes simple on his face, and only runs a brow pencil over his brows, because “I know you want to show the essence of who you are, but brows au naturale will just make you look like a ghost under those lights, be practical, Changmin.”

Now Changmin’s being shoved into his final performance outfit. Yoonju reaches out without ceremony, to yank hard and up at the waistband of his black jeans. 

Ouch,” he says, horrified.

“Don’t snivel, it’s not attractive,” she advises, and then runs a bullish finger down the bare line of his ribs, to check for stray threads.

“Haaaa,” Changmin nearly hits her in the face out of startled reflex, and only barely catches himself when she stares at him, unamused. 

The hem of his jumper flaps against his chest, whisked up by the abrupt motion. Changmin uses his half-lifted arm to grab at it instead.

“Two minutes, come on, Changmin, Yunho’s already standing by,” Jooyoung calls out, whisking him away from Yoonju with a heavy hand at his back, and walking fast. 

The tap of their footsteps seem to be chanting last round, last round, last round at him. 

Or maybe that’s just Changmin’s brain eating itself, as usual. 

He matches Jooyoung’s pace, as a thought occurs to him, slightly overdue given how it’s already the final round: “So what does the audience do when both Yunho and I are changing outfits?”

Jooyoung just looks at him like he’s soft in the head. “The previous competitors are performing either solo or in sets, of course. And we do talk segments. Did you think it would be dead air? We’re live.”

“Oh,” Changmin manages. That makes sense, although it wouldn’t have to him, before Jooyoung said it.

He says as such. 

It makes his favourite assistant producer give an amused scoff, “that’s why you make a living out of feeding people, and not entertaining people. Come along, chop chop, walk faster, let's have those long legs work for their salary.” 

 

--

 

The third(!) and final(!!) round has Yunho in, of all things, a simple black suit, and well-tailored trousers. And what looks like nothing beneath the suit. 

Changmin eyes the plunging vee of his jacket in coy fascination, from the periphery of his sight. He tightens his fingers around his mic. 

Hyunmoo is saying something, and the cameras are on them, and. He doesn’t know if Yunho knows Changmin’s staring at him from the corner of his eye, like a peeping tom. 

In any case, Yunho turns to face him properly, and extends a hand to him. 

It’s outstretched just like how it was so many months ago. 

Like how it was, when Changmin hung up on his mother in Sing! Idol mansion the first day proper and turned to see a smiling stranger. 

This time, instead of holding it gingerly with two fingers and a thumb, Changmin reaches for it and grasps firmly. 

Everyone and everything else fades to white noise in the background.

Yunho’s palm is very warm in his. His fingers are curled tight in return, about Changmin’s palm.

“Good luck,” Changmin tells him. He’s glad his voice is steady. “Let’s try our best.”

“Yes,” Yunho says. He’s smiling. “Let’s.”

 

--

 

Back when Changmin was first informed that three songs would make up the final challenge, he knew that he should look at his final selection of this singing thing like how he looks at the other thing governing his life. 

Cuisine. Food. 

Flow, structure. It's all about the storytelling. 

Sometimes there are six courses, nine courses or even twelve to a proper meal, in Changmin’s line of work. 

But at the end of the day, if you break things down in structure, it would just be three acts. 

Amuse-bouche and appetizer. Savouries and the main course. Dessert. 

Beginning. Climax. Wrap up.

Before he had worked out his first two song choices, Changmin already knew absolutely what he wanted to sing for his final song. 

In a way, he's come in full circle. 

It's the song Hyunseok caught him belting in the kitchen 2am one night, high off experimenting with the summer menu he had in mind.

It’s the song that, Hyunseok tells him much later, tipped his hand into signing Changmin up for Sing! Idol behind his back.

The begonia topping Changmin had created then, frozen by way of liquid nitrogen, was a perfect spread of red and gold, smooth and lovely.

He had put the frozen flower on his tongue, where it had stayed whole and shining and perfect for one brilliant second. Then it crumbled into tart sweetness upon his tongue. 

Changmin wants to recapture that single note of bittersweet happiness he had experienced then; and celebrate the beauty of the transient.

He comes out of his own (rather pretentious!) musings, only to hear Yunho, already on-stage and preparing to perform his final song choice, tell the audience almost conversationally, “this is the final song I’ll sing in Sing! Idol. I wrote this, with the help of some very dear friends-”

At that, Henry waves very enthusiastically, from where the rest of the contestants are seated. Yunho breaks off, to wave back at him. 

The audience sighs, charmed. 

“-because November this past year was a very, very special time for me,” Yunho finishes. 

Bowing low, he holds the pose for five, ten seconds, before straightening to beam a bright grin at the audience, and the cameras. 

Yunho’s eyes find Changmin’s then, standing as he is just off the side of the Judges’ Table.

“So please enjoy November With Love, and thank you for everything,” Yunho tells Changmin, and lowers his head to wait for the studio band. To begin.

 

--

 

It's a love letter to him, Changmin realises abruptly, standing there with Yunho's amplified vocals wrapped around him like a warm embrace. Like Yunho’s hands. 

“My heart froze in the cold wind of early winter,” Yunho croons huskily.

Eyes shut and a hand splayed against his waist, his voice is a beautiful smooth arc whilst his fingers flutter a slow beat against his blazer, “it has changed, after meeting you.”

It’s a love letter written for him. For him. For Changmin. 

In November, Yunho had cared enough about a fellow contestant, enough to ignore that they’re supposed to be in competition with each other, that retaining Changmin on the show meant that his good friend was forfeited in his stead. 

In November, Yunho had appeared out of the blue, during a time when Changmin was back in his real life and at his real job, to eat Changmin’s food, properly made and properly presented, and he had looked at that and picked out immediately the story Changmin had wanted to tell, with his food, and he had said to Changmin with utmost sincerity, “you have so much talent and it just shines through.”

In November, he gave Yunho his hoodie, a spur of the moment thing, because Yunho had shivered in the cold, and yet. But.

Standing there like this, listening to each line Yunho infuses with almost dreamy melancholy, matching each line of the lyrics to his own -to their- memories, Changmin can’t run anymore.

Nor hide behind the denials he’s used to fob off so many people, and himself.

Nor ignore the times when he played dumb, when the friends he’s made here offer teasing comments, or knowing laughter. 

This song is the final straw. This song tips the scales. This song is.

It had felt impossible. It feels impossible. It shouldn’t have been like this.

Who is he? He’s just Changmin. Yes, he loves Yunho, and he’s faced that and accepted that about himself months ago. 

But. He doesn’t deserve this. He doesn’t deserve bright, shining Yunho. He’s never thought about reciprocity.

It’s impossible.

And yet…

And yet.

Every line that Yunho sings is familiar somehow; passages of a story that Changmin’s read. That Changmin’s lived through.

Yunho’s voice soars, and soars.

There’s a thread of huskiness even in the way he belts out the chorus and it’s perfect in its imperfection. 

Changmin’s fingers are so tight about his own mic that it hurts, a distant, dull sort of pain. 

It should be impossible.

What Yunho probably doesn’t realise, because Changmin’s never truly given him a chance to, or given himself a chance to, because it had seemed so impossible. 

What Yunho likely doesn’t realise is. 

Changmin’s heart has changed, too, because of him. Because of Yunho. Because of this.

 

--

 

He doesn’t know how he gets on stage after that. It’s likely pure muscle memory and survival instinct honed in his lizard brain.

All Changmin remembers is that single, fleeting glance Yunho throws at him; before Yunho bows again to the audience.

Then he walks to stage left quietly, with applause trailing behind him. He goes without another look backward.

Hyunmoo asks him something, and Changmin answers something else about desserts and whatnot, but. He can’t, for the life of him, quite concentrate. 

Until the drummist starts, and the guitarist strums the first note.

Until the crowd hushes, expectant. 

Changmin remembers to bring up his mic then, and he truly understands something else Yunho just said, a little while ago.

This is the final song that Changmin will sing for Sing! Idol. 

After this, the competition ends. Everything will change again, or maybe even go back to the way things ought to be. 

Somehow the sentiment grounds him in the moment, and helps him to belt out to the rows and rows and rows of people, “Forever love, forever dream, このままそばにいて.”

With courage he previously wouldn’t have thought he had, before he joined Sing! Idol, before he met Yunho, before all and any of these; Changmin closes his eyes, and just sings.

“夜明けに震える心を抱きしめて, oh! Stay with me.”

 

--

 

Absolutely no time is left to them, not even for a quick breather. Not even just one minute, left to their own devices and away from the always-present cameras. 

Changmin yearns to grab Yunho and pull him aside, even if it’s for thirty seconds.

But he can’t. They can’t.

Instead Yunho’s brought back on stage the second that Changmin lowers his mic, and the studio backing band puts down their instruments.

There’s a part of him that still can’t believe, now that it’s happened, that Yunho did that right on the finale of something that has always been clearly so important to him.

Changmin’s no expert, but even he knows that in entertainment, the audience is looking for a high. For a proper climax. Even he knows that-

His mind shies away from the thought. 

“Wow!” Hyunmoo keeps saying, “Wow!”

“A truly strong showing from both our finalists,” he praises, ushering both Changmin and Yunho to stand centre-stage, “from our hot favourite and our dark horse! Wow! Impressive, aren’t they, ladies and gentlemen?”

Another swell of noise from the audience. The judges are on their feet, and the rest of the Sing! Idol twenty, and oh, oh

Members of the audience are getting up, too. 

There’s a standing ovation. People are giving him and Yunho a standing ovation.

Warmth around his left hand makes him look down, and. Yunho’s hand is wrapped around his.

He looks back up, startled. 

Yunho meets his eyes, and tilts his head, and Changmin understands, then. 

Their hands clasped together, they turn to face the audience, and bow. 

When they’re upright again, Hyunmoo’s shouting, and waving a red envelope lined in gilt, “but there’s no time to waste! Audience members! Viewers from all over the country! I’ve got in my hands- the result for tonight’s showdown!”

Another chorus of cheers greet his proclamation. 

“Before I open it,” he crows, to the audience’s loud consternation, “judges! Come! Time to say a few words!”

Changmin knows his hand is sweaty. It must be a horrible feeling, for Yunho to grasp onto that, and feel all that dampness.

He tries to wriggle it free surreptitiously. 

Yunho holds fast. 

He tries again, but Yunho just tightens his grip. Changmin gives up.

The judges look at each other. Jaewon is the first to pick up the mic. “I have nothing to say, only that I am very, very, very happy with how far these two have pushed their own boundaries, and how far they’ve both come.”

He passes the mic to Jongkook, who goes, “on one hand, I’m bitter that this has basically come down to a competition between Jaewon and BoA.” 

Too-loud laughter from Hyunmoo, and the audience greets him, and over at the Sing! Idol section, Kyuhyun flings a dramatic hand over his eyes, and falls back in a fake swoon. 

Jongkook waits for the tittering to subside, then, “but I have to say both Yunho and Changmin put on a very fine show tonight. I don’t know who the winner is, in that envelope that Hyunmoo is waving around. I really don’t know, because it can go either way.”

Deafening cheers greet his statement. A huddle of schoolboys right behind him raise the gigantic fansign in their hands and shout, “Yunho!”

The gaggle of aunties in the opposite section shush them very loudly. BoA picks up the mic. 

She smiles, and turns to look at the audience as well. “I don’t think I’ve said this publicly before. A long time ago, Yunho and I met. It was in an SM Entertainment practice room that was dressed up for auditions. We were both very, very young.”

Someone in the stands shrieks, shrill, “so it’s true!” 

Next to Changmin, Yunho inclines his head. 

BoA laughs impishly, “Yes, it’s true. It must be nearly twenty years since, right? I will say only this, and I believe my company fully backs me on it. In hindsight, we lost a gem that day when Yunho didn’t join us as a trainee. Look at him now!”

Yunho bows again. The audience are shouting so loudly that Changmin’s surprised the rafters are still standing. Changmin himself has taken his hand away from Yunho, so that he can clap long and vigorous and loud.

“And Changmin,” BoA looks at him. “I am very, very, very proud of you. It has been an honour to see you fight, and win, round after round, against your greatest competitor. Yourself. I’m extremely happy that I got to use my Judge’s Chance for you.”

The audience loves that. Changmin just folds himself over at the waist, into a deep bow. 

When the cheers have petered out, Hyunmoo strolls back to centre-stage with a casual, “so I guess I should open this…”

That gets the audience going again. 

After much teasing, Hyunmoo finally works the edges of the envelope open. They are all treated to his face as he scans the results, inscrutable save for a very slight widening of his eyes.

At the front of the stage, the camera operators pull in for close-ups of him from varying angles. 

“Well,” he says at last. 

The studio is silent, a pregnant hush. “Well, now.”

“Tell us!” Someone cries, from high up on the stands, and someone else joins in, until it’s too noisy again, until Hyunmoo holds up a staying hand. 

“Well,” he says again. “Without further ado. Wow! All I can say is: wow. South Korea has spoken!” 

Zhou Mi shouts from the contestant section, to chuckles and excited agreement from the audience, “tell us what she said, then!”

Beside him, Chanyeol pulls a face, and gets a hand around his face to gag him in one exaggerated movement, generating another wave of commiserating laughter. 

Hyunmoo shakes his head, and puts a finger to his lips. 

At a cue offstage from the crew, the backing band starts a low, ominous drumroll. 

“The winner of Sing! Idol is,” Hyunmoo intones dramatically.

He pauses, to let the drums do their job. 

Shrieks from the audience have reached a feverish pitch. Changmin can barely pick out shouts of Yunho’s name, and his, through the unintelligible screaming. 

He reaches for Yunho’s hand again.

Yunho lets him, and threads their fingers together. 

“-Shim Changmin. Congratulations!”

What?

 

--

 


CHANGMIN’S SETLIST: FINALE


YUNHO’S SETLIST: FINALE

Saying ‘I love you’ is not the words 

I want to hear from you 

It's not that I want you not to say

but if you only knew 

How easy it would be to show me how you feel

More than words,

Is all you have to do to make it real.


-- MORE THAN WORDS.

결국 멈췄던 시계는 제 길을 가 

두고 봐 내가 개척하는 딴 세상 

이제 그만 Drop it low 

제발 그만 Drop it low 

이제 그만 Drop it low 

제발 그만 Drop it low

 

 

-- DROP

새까만 건반을 두드릴 때 (Piano) 

새하얀 건반 사일 오갈 때 (Piano) 

몹쓸 악상이 피어나 (No no no no) 

When you play on my piano, I go go go (Piano) 

I like it when you say ‘don’t stop’ 

I like it, don’t stop.


-- PIANO.

You’re in sexy blue skinny jeans 

숨도 못 쉬게 넌 날 안아 줄 것만 같아 

You’re in sexy blue vintage jeans 

좀 더 어른처럼 넌 날 다뤄 줄 것만 같아 

How does it feel?

 

 

-- BLUE JEANS.


Forever love, forever dream 

このままそばにいて 

夜明けに震える心を抱きしめて 

Oh! Stay with me.

 

 

 

 

-- FOREVER LOVE.


이른 겨울 찬 바람에 얼어붙은 내 마음이 

그대를 만나게 된 후로 변했어 

11월의 첫눈처럼 설레던 그 시간에 나는 

바보처럼 멈춰졌어 

나를 떠나지 마세요 나를 떠나지 말아요 

우리 울고 웃던 그 곳에서 

나를 떠나지 마세요 (떠나지 마세요)


-- 11월… 그리고 (NOVEMBER WITH LOVE).

 

--

 

Chapter Text

 

Yunho is the first to react, a moving vibrant blur in Changmin’s peripheral vision. His voice is loud and enthusiastic. “Congratulations, Changminnie!”

Changmin blinks at him, and at the cacophony surrounding them. 

And oh, there’s two lines of warmth along his ribs, where his jumper isn’t a jumper. 

Hugging. He’s being hugged. Yunho’s hugging him.

Changmin’s not quite sure what just happened. He could have sworn that Hyunmoo said something about him winning Sing! Idol, but that’s not possible. 

It’s impossible, because Yunho’s supposed to win Sing! Idol. It’s Yunho’s. 

Changmin’s just here for… Singing. He just wanted to sing. He’s not here to win. He was never here to win.

Yunho’s the one who’s supposed to win Sing! Idol. Not Changmin.

There’s a lot of noise, and more people are hugging him, and things are being shoved into hands, and Hyunmoo’s there, BoA’s there, and someone’s tugging at his hands, and oh, it’s Yunho.

Yunho’s still got one arm around him, and his other hand is trying to push Changmin’s mic up to his- mouth-? 

Hyunmoo keeps saying something, over and over again, but Changmin can’t quite hear. 

It’s a little like he’s underwater. Then Yunho’s mouthing at him, say a few words, you need to say a few words.

“Say a few words,” he repeats blankly into his mic, which is held up to his lips by all ten of his fingers, and Yunho’s hand. 

There’s laughter -maybe- and Hyunmoo’s the one one repeating at him now, “South Korea loves her a good underdog story! Congratulations! Now, now say a few words, Changmin!”

The mic is resting against his bottom lip. Changmin blurts into it, “should we do a recount?”

It’s apparently very witty of him. Everyone laughs, and talks a lot more, but Changmin’s too busy looking at Yunho. 

Yunho’s smiling, too. His arm is still around Changmin’s. 

It’s wrong. They need to recount the votes.

 

--

 

“You need to recount the votes,” Changmin says breathlessly to Soyoung, when they’re finally backstage, in one of the many press rooms.

His voice is too loud and his tone is too blunt even to his own ears.

For the first time in a long time, there are no cameras. His handset mic has been taken away from him and his mic pack is only half-removed. It’s dangling from his waist now, and the pack itself may be dragging against his jeans and the wires are tangled but Changmin could care less. Is caring less.

Soyoung looks harassed. Maybe this isn’t the first time Changmin’s repeating this at her. He thinks he’s been saying it for a bit-

He steadies his breathing. 

“You need to,” he repeats with careful enunciation and raps his knuckles against the long table, one rap for each word, in case she doesn’t understand him, because he barely understands himself, “recount the votes.”

“And I told you,” she’s pushing a hand against his chest, “we already did, because there was only a margin difference of two-hundred and twelve votes in total. Don’t loom over me like that, boy.”

Changmin startles, and takes a large step back. He didn’t realise he was looming over her.

“I didn’t realise I was looming over you,” he blurts, and twists his hands together. 

His heart is beating very fast. “Sorry. I. Sorry. But you need to do another recount. You need to. There’s been a mistake.”

“There’s no mistake,” Soyoung says tiredly. From the corner of his eye, he can see Youngmin and Youngjin making their way over to them. “You won.”

“I can’t have,” Changmin says shrilly with very real desperation, and points at Yunho, who’s also here in the press room, and who is actually sitting at the one of the chairs pulled out from the table. “He’s the winner of Sing! Idol.”

“He is not,” Soyoung snaps back, curt, and darts a glance at Yunho. “No offence, Yunho.”

“None taken, Soyoung,” Yunho is, of all things, actually still smiling. “It’s the truth.”

It is not,” Changmin shakes his head hard, going over to Yunho instead and grabbing him by the arms, to shake him. “Are you crazy? Stop smiling! They’ve made a mistake- they need to do a recount-”

“They don’t, Changminnie,” Yunho’s hands are cupped around his elbows. His hands are warm, and his grip is firm. “You won, fair and square.”

Changmin glares at him so hard that he feels a headache coming on. “I did not.”

“Did too.” Yunho’s still smiling. In fact, the stupid grin on his face is widening. “All of South Korea says so.”

“Did not!”

“Did too.” The stupid man is actually stupidly laughing, why the fuck is he so stupid, really Changmin doesn’t fucking know!

Did not!

“Did not,” the stupid man says.

“Did too-” Changmin pauses, breath stuttering. It makes Yunho chuckle again, even as Changmin hears himself bleat a confused, “wait.”

Youngmin coughs, gunshot-loud and very near behind him. 

Changmin jumps, yelping. His fingers dig into Yunho’s arms by reflex.

He tries to pull away the next second, because that must have hurt; but. Yunho doesn’t let him. His hands are now very warm and very tight around Changmin’s wrists. 

“Are you two done?” Youngmin wants to know. He looks unamused.

“Yes,” Yunho says cheerfully.

“No,” Changmin moans.

“This is the first time, in the many years of my television career,” Youngmin starts, arms crossed over his chest, “that I produce a show and the winner of my show nearly has a public breakdown because he’s won said show and refuses to believe he’s won because he thinks someone else should win.

Our show,” Youngjin mutters from his side.

Soyoung elbows him, lips pressed into a thin line. 

“But I can’t have,” Changmin starts again, like a broken record. He knows he sounds like a broken record. He is a broken record. His hands are still in Yunho’s. “I can’t- look at him, it’s him.”

Soyoung tilts her head back and sighs. She sounds like a pair of very large, very noisy bellows.

Youngmin opens his mouth again. 

“Okay,” Yunho releases one of Changmin’s hands, to hold his own up. “Can we have about twenty minutes, please? Let me talk to Changmin.”

The executive producers exchange glances amongst themselves. Youngjin is the one to draw in a breath, but before he can say anything, Yunho adds: “Alone.”

“We actually have members of the press waiting to do an interview with both of you, and Amber,” Soyoung states, eyes narrowing. “The live telecast ended, but now the nation is reacting. Those media interviews can’t be pushed. Chosun Daily and Yonhap are here too, and we’re going on their front pages tomorrow morning. This is not a dinky little half-hearted-”

“Twenty minutes,” Yunho promises, aiming a dazzling grin at all three of the executive producers. “Just give us twenty minutes. Then we’ll come out to talk to Chosun and Yonhap and everyone else.” 

 

--

 

The executive producers leave the room in silent acquiescence, although Youngmin had to have his arm very firmly grasped by Youngjin, and be guided out in an almost-march. 

It’s just the two of them now. 

It’s just Changmin, and Yunho.

It’s just the two of them.

Fuck, what has he done? What has Changmin done?

“Changminnie,” Yunho’s got one hand firm against his shoulder, and he’s pressing down, a gentle pressure. 

“Your hands are very big,” Changmin blurts. “And warm.”

What the fuck is wrong with him.

He’s lucky that Yunho just lifts a brow at him, lips quirked in an upcurl, and now he’s got Changmin against a chair, and Changmin sinks into it gratefully. 

His legs are suddenly very wobbly, and things are looking a little grey around the edges. 

Yunho pulls up another chair, and sits in it. His knees are touching Changmin’s.

Their knees are touching each other. 

“Hey. Changminnie,” Yunho says again, leaning towards him. His eyes are very kind. He’s got both hands wrapped around Changmin’s again. “Changmin. It’s all right. There are no cameras here. It’s all right. You’re all right. It’s over. Let go.”

Changmin breaks.

It’s Yunho, Yunho’s safe, Yunho’s safety. It’s Yunho. It’s only Yunho.

So Changmin breaks.

He doubles over, sucking in a breath and another and another, and another, until his breaths come along too fast and over each other and the anxiety that’s been a hovering all day like a pulsing haze in counterpoint to his heartbeat is a white cloud and he’s breathing too fast and he knows he’s shaking and there’s a mess of butterflies and caterpillars and whatnot in his stomach and he’s coughing and choking and he’s holding Yunho’s hands too tightly oh fuck he’s hurting Yunho oh fuck oh fuck oh-

“All right,” Yunho’s voice is calm, and clear, after a while. After a thousand years, after minutes. After seconds. “All right. That’s enough. Now breathe together with me, Changmin. One thousand in. Two thousand out. Three thousand in.”

It takes a while, and feels like years and years but must be no time at all, or too much time. Changmin’s finally got his breathing somewhat back under control, and he lets go of Yunho’s hands, only to stare in horror at the red ugly welts he’s dug into the back of Yunho’s hands. “Oh fuck-”

“Hey,” Yunho’s got his hands out of Changmin’s vision and around the back of his neck, instead. His eyes are very clear and his pupils are very black and very large and very close. “Hey. Don’t look at that. Look at me. Here. My face. It’s fine. It’s all right. You’re all right. Breathe. One thousand in.”

“Okay,” Changmin says, and does. 

“Breathe,” Yunho murmurs. “Two thousand out.”

 

--

 

When he’s breathing normally on his own, Yunho finally lets go of the inexorable hold he’s got around the back of Changmin’s neck.

Changmin scrambles back against his chair.

He hasn’t had a panic attack like that in, well, years.

“Sorry.” His face and ears are burning. He can’t believe he actually did that. "I’m sorry. So sorry.”

Yunho scruffs a hand over his own face, and huffs out a little laugh. “Don’t be. You looked like you needed that.”

“Yes,” Changmin starts. He doesn’t know what else to say, but his mouth has ideas of its own, “you’re very good at that.”

“At what?” Yunho’s smiling at him again, a crooked lopsided curve. It looks a little tired. He looks tired.

“At getting me to calm down,” Changmin looks down at his hands, and back up at Yunho. “You always know what to do.”

“Are you ready to accept that you’ve won?” Yunho’s smile doesn’t widen, but somehow he looks less tired. Almost teasing. “Or do we have to do that whole exercise again? I think Soyoung will have a panic attack herself, if we don’t open that door in ten minutes.”

“Ten minutes?” Changmin starts, and looks at the clock on the wall of the press room.

“Yes, I asked for twenty, but you’re efficient,” Yunho’s grin is definitely teasing, now. “So we have ten minutes left.”

They’re both silent for a little bit, then:

“I shouldn’t have won,” Changmin says, very softly. 

He’s not quite sure he’s said it out loud, until Yunho lifts a brow at him. He’s no longer smiling.

“Why?” Yunho’s gaze is steady. Unwavering.

“Because you,” Changmin gestures helplessly at Yunho, then at himself. “I.”

“Er.” He cringes back a little in reflex, when Yunho suddenly stands.

“Now,” Yunho’s tone is brisk, even as he draws himself up to his full height. He’s looking down at Changmin. “I’m going to cut you some slack, because I know all this has you out of your comfort zone, and you’ve been pushing yourself all these months and you just had a panic attack. That’s fine. But don’t say that again, all right?”

Changmin blinks up at him. Post-panic attack, his brain feels sluggish. “Why?”

“Changmin.” Suddenly, Yunho’s face is close. He’s bent over so their faces are inches from each other’s. “You don’t pity me, right?”

“What?” Changmin stares at him. He feels like his eyes are bulging out from his own head. “No!

That’s the last emotion he’ll ever feel with regards to Yunho. Changmin opens his mouth to say so, but Yunho cuts him off, again.

“Good. You know that I’m happy you won fair and square? You worked hard. So hard,” Yunho continues, looking infuriatingly and puzzlingly calm. “It was never about winning Sing! Idol for me. Maybe I had a nebulous thought in the beginning, but I always... It was about seeing if I can, and if a dream from long ago still fits. I got my answer. It does, even though I didn’t win against you. But I tried my best, and it means I’ve won against myself. You taught me that.”

“Did. Did I?” Changmin chokes, mid-inhale.

“You did,” Yunho affirms, patting at his knee. “We both did. And I lost against you, sure, but that’s not the point. That’s why I’m happy.”

“I don’t understand why you are,” Changmin says, voice small.

That earns him a hum from Yunho, who doesn’t say anything; just searches Changmin’s gaze with his unblinking own.

Changmin doesn’t know what Yunho sees, but the other just sighs, soft and low, “don’t cheapen your efforts by denying your win, Changmin.”

“I-”

“And,” Yunho continues, as softly, “don’t cheapen my efforts by denying what they reap. All right?”

Changmin’s stricken with guilt. “I would never- I don’t mean it that way-”

“I know you don’t mean it like that,” Yunho assures, low and crisp. “Trust your efforts. Trust mine. Trust Soyoung and the team and their sense of professionalism and how they would never compromise the quality of their work. Of course they made sure the final vote count is correct, before they released it live on national television. Yes?”

“Ah…” Changmin tries.

But Yunho’s not done, “and from now on, if you try to demand a recount again, that’s what I’ll take it as, all right? That you pity me, and you felt my efforts were cheap.”

“What,” Changmin says, very very faintly. “What. How do you even. What. That’s... evil.”

It startles Yunho out of his stern ‘you-accept-your-win-or-else’ spiel, and pulls an amused snort out from him. Nearly a giggle. “Evil?”

“Yeah,” Changmin stares at him. Maybe he’s still shell-shocked. The words are spilling out of him, staccato, and they make Yunho’s lips twitch suspiciously. “You’re manipulating me. Into accepting this. Thing. Evil. How can I ever. Pity. Ha. But you. It’s evil. Ingenious. But evil. You’re evil. I knew you had to have flaws, somewhere.”

Yunho barks out a crack of surprised laughter at that. His face is still very close. Changmin maybe crosses his eyes, just to keep looking Yunho in the eye, as the other goes, “I’m glad you approve.”

“I…” Changmin blinks, and opens his mouth. Closes it, and opens it again, pausing. 

Then, “we’ll still be in contact after this, right? After tonight. After Sing! Idol. You and I. We’ll still be in contact. With each other.”

Yunho’s gaze is unblinking. “Did you want to cease contact?”

“No!” Changmin says hurriedly, too loud. “I just meant- No, well- I thought you might- Yeah- Okay never mind I was just okay no yeah sorry. No.”

Yunho’s grinning, a quicksilver flash of white teeth. Then he’s unsmiling again, and leaning in even closer.

“You know,” Yunho’s looking more serious than Changmin’s ever seen him, “that November with Love is for you, don’t you? I wrote the lyrics for you.”

Maybe it’s physically impossible to have another panic attack so soon after the last.

Changmin doesn’t feel anxious. He just doesn’t feel anything. 

He’s pretty sure he stops breathing.

“Breathe,” Yunho reminds gently.

Changmin takes in a breath. His mind is blank.

He doesn’t know what to say, even though he came to the realisation himself on stage, less than an hour ago. 

“Your teeth are very white,” he blurts out. 

It makes Yunho laugh, and laugh, and laugh, while choking out a stifled “veneers, I got veneers done for them a long time ago.” 

He’s laughing so much that he’s leaning forward a little, and a little more, until, oh. 

Yunho’s head is against Changmin’s shoulder. Oh.

Oh.

Changmin swallows, tensing. His throat clicks from how dry it’s become.

“I’m not pushing for anything,” Yunho says, voice muffled against the coarse wool over his shoulder. He’s still not looking up at Changmin and, “I know you’re not comfortable. But I just want to make sure that you know.”

All he can see from his vantage point is Yunho’s hair, and the pale curve of one ear.

Changmin wants to look away. 

He can’t look away.

Stuttering, he manages to eke out a, “yes.”

Yunho sits up, then. He’s still too close. 

“Do you understand what I mean by it?” Yunho’s voice is low, so low that Changmin barely can hear him, and more reads the words from Yunho’s lips.

“I. Yes,” Changmin says again. His face is so hot that he’s half afraid he’s having a fever. 

“Just so we are clear,” Yunho murmurs, too too too close. 

When he blinks, the ends of his eyelashes tickle, against the wings of Changmin’s cheekbones. 

Changmin opens his mouth.

The door opens. 

Yunho pulls away, looking towards the entrance. He’s got his lips shaped into a polite curve.

“I don’t care if Changmin is frothing at the mouth, we’ll sedate him then and-” Soyoung starts, and pauses at the sight of both of them, seated with utmost civility in their own chairs. “Oh.”

“Yeah. Er.” Changmin stands up in a hurry, dazed not from the aftermath of his panic attack, but rather. Yunho. “I’m not frothing at the mouth.”

Yunho follows suit. The smile on his face is brilliant. 

Soyoung stares very hard at both of them, and springs to action. “Right! It's good to see that you're not rabid and raving. Let’s go, let’s go.”

 

--

 

Life after Sing! Idol feels the same, yet different at the same time.

Mostly it’s the same, the weeks after. 

He is still who he was before Hyunseok signed him up for “oh it’s just a small singing competition on the telly”, with the reason of “develop[ing] your other skill sets” some nine months ago. And all because Changmin had irritated him by belting one too many ONE OK ROCK and X Japan songs at full volume during service prep.

Shim Changmin is still a chef, and Shim Changmin still works at Choidot. Except for the occasional reporter who drops by; the frequent awe-struck restaurant-goer who asks for an autograph; the odd ajumma on the street who requests for a wefie; and the additional one-hundred million won to his bank account in the form of a cheque, which he encashes and pulls from his savings to top up to an even hundred-and-fifty million won, and gives it over to Jinwoo in the form of his own cheque one night after the dinner service ends whilst saying, “Chef, please let me invest in your restaurant.” 

Jinwoo stares at him for a very long time in stupefied silence, fingers slack around his bottle of beer.

Hyunseok, sat in between them, starts chuckling quietly into his habitual vodka tonic.

“You sang too much and melted your brain,” Jinwoo decides, after a long stretch where no one moves or speaks, save for Hyunseok’s unsubtle and unsuccessful attempts to muffle his hilarity.

“No!” Changmin protests. It’s an idea he’s played around in his head, even before Sing! Idol, when he and Garam first learnt that Jinwoo wants to venture out to form a restaurant under his own name. 

However; without the winnings from Sing! Idol, Changmin also knows he would not have found it as easy to set aside this sum, even after working for more than a decade in the industry.

Both his chefs ignore him.

Hyunseok pulls himself away from his glass long enough to chortle, “the boy wants to be your investor and he has the spare cash. Just let him, you daft berk. It’s still capital for you.”

“It’s your fault,” Jinwoo informs him, scowling. “You signed him up for the damned hellish thing. Now I have a hot part sous without a brain!”

“So you’re saying no one should invest in your dream restaurant? Brainless money is still money,” Hyunseok retorts.

“Hey!” Changmin glares at them both.

The entire conversation takes too long. At least it ends with Jinwoo accepting Changmin’s cheque with a grudging “I suppose you’re smart, boy, to start planning alternative ways of income. That old man,” a raised eyebrow at Hyunseok, “won’t last forever.”

“Careful,” Hyunseok says mildly enough, “recall who else has also invested in this upcoming venture of yours.” 

“Right, yeah, right,” Jinwoo cocks his head, and tosses back his own drink.

It’s the most casual Changmin has seen his head chef, even though his chef whites are still spotless and he’s still straight-backed in his chair. Said head chef cocks his head at their boss.“So when are you telling the boy he’s promoted?”

“Oh,” Hyunseok says laconically, and with some realisation. He looks over at Changmin, and raises his vodka tonic in a toast, “yeah, so you’re promoted.”

 

--

 

So maybe life’s not quite the same for Changmin after Sing! Idol. But it’s that different, either. 

Changmin has finally accepted his own win, to his own disbelief and the eye-rolling relief of many. It feels disingenuous not to. 

He knows he should, after he basically bothered the production crew and staff for vote recounts and repeated “Me? I’m the winner? Me?”s that even Jihwan had turned his camera off to whack him heavily against the back of his head.

He knows he should, after the following fortnight when almost every person in his scant social circles text him GIFs of him going “should we do a recount?” on national television without any (additional) provocation whatsoever on his part.

He knows he should, after Yunho’s threatened what he’s threatened.

Yunho.

That’s one of the areas where his life is different, post-Sing! Idol.

For one: no more Yunho in near and physical vicinity on a twenty-four/seven basis, which he’s still trying to get used to. Even though he should have been already used to it, given the break before the semi-final and all. But that didn't feel as final as it does, now.

After that enlightening conversation, which Changmin labels inside his own head as “when the love of my life emotionally blackmailed me into accepting his loss (to me) and casually admitted his feelings (for me) via a song he wrote and sang on national television and also casually admitted that song is for me (to me)”, well-

When Changmin can bear to think about it, that is. 

He usually can’t. He’s tried.

But he hasn’t yet gone more than thirty seconds without his fingers curling from belated embarrassment, whilst ruminating on this particular… matter.

For two: After that enlightening conversation, things don’t quite go anywhere between them.

Not forward, nor backward. It just is. 

It’s not bad. It’s just… confusing. For Changmin. 

He doesn’t know how Yunho feels about that. About it. 

They don’t talk about it, save for Yunho’s “I’m not pushing for anything” that very night. And then nothing. 

It’s been weeks. It just doesn’t come up in conversation, and Changmin doesn’t want to push. 

For three: Other than that… matter, they do talk. Frequently enough that it’s on a daily basis.

It’s something that Changmin didn’t expect, but now is

They don’t cease contact after all, despite his initial fears.

Somehow it’s easier to talk to Yunho now that the weight of the competition isn’t hanging over them.

Changmin thinks it isn’t just him. Yunho used to respond to his Kakao texts -already few and far between when Changmin can pluck up the nerve- with one-liners and an abundance of emojis. It wasn’t bad, precisely; but it didn’t make having a conversation easy. 

Now they seem to be having the opposite problem. Not that it’s a problem. 

It’s just that Changmin feels like he’s learning more about Yunho over lines of words on the screen and a few digital pixels, than he had in the months where they were living and breathing and sleeping and eating and singing under the same roof.

Not to mention now there's the fact that there are no more cameras. Which surprisingly enough, actually takes some time for Changmin to get used to.

They can just- say things out now.

It takes weeks, and Yunho to be more teasing than he’s ever been during the competition days, for Changmin to get slightly more used to the no-camera state of things, and stop looking over his shoulder for Jihwan and his compatriots before he responds.

Even now, Changmin’s mobile vibrates from inside the pocket of his uniform, and he has to stop himself from looking left to see if Jihwan is filming.

He fishes his mobile out from his pocket and swipes at the screen to see a Kakao notification from Yunho.

But Changmin doesn’t get to open it though, because:

“Lunch break is over, winner,” Hyemi digs a bony elbow into his ribs as she strides past. “You can date your boyfriend on your phone later.”

“I’m not dating! It’s not dating! It’s just Kakao. You Kaokao me, too!” Changmin calls huffily after her, voice raised above the din of Team Choidot’s lunchtime chatter. Hyemi doesn’t even deign to look at him; he’s just treated to a dismissive hand wave, as she leans over to check where Sunhwa’s gotten the liquorice at.

He rubs at his side, and winces. She’s got bony elbows despite being (and maybe because she’s) someone half his weight.

Everyone ignores him, so he lowers his voice in a small quibble, “there’s no one to date. He’s not my boyfriend.”

 

--

 

Are you still fighting SM Entertainment over your album, says Yunho’s text, when Changmin finally finishes dinner prep and staff dinner and has an hour to himself in the rooftop break-room and can finally check his phone. 

He scrolls, only to see that Yunho’s thrown a Gaping Finale Changmin sticker in as well for good measure.

Changmin makes a face at the sight of his own slack jaw and shocked expression in the sticker. He taps back, it’s not going to be my album if I can help it.

His mobile rings barely twenty seconds later. 

Shuffling, so that he’s seated on the floor with the door to his back, Changmin picks up.

“You mean it’s not going to be ‘just’ your album,” Yunho corrects, voice tinny in his ear.

“Hi,” Changmin can feel himself smiling. “You could have just texted back.”

“Hello. I’m working on the curriculum for my Ballet to Basics class and not really looking at my phone,” Yunho says, voice teasing. “Better to ring you. Or you’ll end up Kakaoing Hyukjae to ask if I’m dead in a ditch somewhere again.”

“That was one time,” Changmin exclaims, offended, “and you took ten minutes to type out one line of text and it was nine at night! It was out of concern. How was I supposed to know you’re just slow.”

“Wow,” Yunho’s laughing, liquid sunshine trickling down the line, “nice to know your opinion of me, Changminnie.”

“It’s not just me. Hyukjae called you a tortoise,” Changmin sells said man out in pure self-defence, which induces another explosion of mirth from Yunho.

“I’ll break his spine later,” Yunho promises, voice thick with fondness. “Now what is this about your album not being your album?”

It’s both easier and harder at the same time, talking to Yunho like this. It’s normal and it feels too much like how it should have been when they’re practicing in the Sing! Idol mansion. 

Changmin finds himself behaving more like a semi-normal fully-grown adult man should, these days.

Sometimes he even forgets to be nice, and snipes at Yunho either over the phone, or over text.

Yunho always laughs deafeningly loud or sends a too long string of kieuks when that happens.

Changmin doesn’t know quite how it happens. But he feels like their friendship(?) is deepening, in a way, ironically when they see each other less. 

He finds himself actually behaving more like a human being around Yunho, and less like some overgrown red vegetable, which was basically his state of being the first few weeks they met. 

“I mean, they only said that the winner will get to have an album produced,” Changmin reasons, “One record deal, right? But no one’s ever said anything about how long it’ll be, and how many people will get to sing in it.”

“Only because the company management and our executive producers assume the winner will, as do normal people when they fight hard for something, want a twelve to sixteen track album that is solely theirs,” Yunho is all but giggling into Changmin’s ear. It’s an extremely lovely feeling. “You’re crazy, Changminnie.”

Changmin’s not even mad that Yunho’s calling him crazy. “I thought you said I’m an asshole.”

“When did I- Oh, yes,” Yunho pauses, clearly recalling the January incident in the snow, and snorts. “You’re that, too.”

“That’s,” and ‘lovely’ gets stuck in Changmin’s throat, because the door he’s leaning against opens without preamble. 

Leaning against air means Changmin falls flat on his back, with an unwieldy and too loud thud.

Blinking up at the evening sun, he squints, one hand coming up to his head, “ow.”

A shadow looms over him, and Seonyeob puts his unimpressed face too near his. “Boss. Sehyeong fucked up the fried capellini nests again. Chef wants you to come settle them, since you’re going to be head chef soon.”

“What?” Changmin forgets the pain at the back of his head, and gapes at Seonyeob. His mobile is still clutched to him. “You’re supposed to hover and make sure that doesn’t happen!”

“I was all but breathing down his neck, boss,” Seonyeob is long-suffering. “’S not my fault if his fingers are like toes. Can you talk to your boyfriend later, and come back down first? When I was coming up, Chef looked like he wanted to dunk Sehyeong into the oil instead of the nests.”

“I’m not- it’s not- he’s not-” Changmin splutters, and realises with some horror that his mobile is still against his ear, and Yunho probably- 

He probably heard!

“I’ll let you get back to work, Changminnie,” Yunho is chuckling in his ear. “Text when you’re free. ’Bye for now!”

“B-bye,” Changmin says forlornly to a dial tone. He pulls his phone away from his ear, and snaps his head up to glare at Seonyeob.

“It’s working hours, Boss,” his idiot of a support spreads his hands with too-deliberate innocence. “You shouldn’t date during working hours.”

“Thanks, you- dick,” Changmin splutters, when he double and triple-checks despite the dial tone, to make sure Yunho’s hung up. “He probably heard you!”

“Your boyfriend?” If anything, Seonyeob’s unimpressed face grows even more so. “There’s nothing wrong with what I just said. And maybe you should stop wiping the floor with your uniform. Big Boss will have a field day if he sees you.”

“Respect,” Changmin seethes, clambering to his feet, and staggering slightly, because there’s pins and needles prickling at his soles, from being seated too long in one position. “Back in my day, we were terrified of our sous chefs- we called them only by their titles- we didn’t dare to speak at them until they spoke to us- we did what they gave us- we were respectful-

“Yeah, yeah,” Seonyeob turns, so they are walking alongside each other. “Back in your day, the only game on mobile phones was Snake, and there were like, only five channels on the television.”

“It was a better era,” Changmin snarls, and remembers himself enough to hiss, “and he’s not my boyfriend!”

Seonyeob just makes a disbelieving face at him, and hops down the stairs, two steps at a time.

 

--

 

He meets Kyuhyun for drinks that weekend, at Taeyeon’s pub.

It’s a bit like killing two -make it three- birds with one stone. All of their schedules are clashing now that they’re back on track with their lives. 

Changmin’s still working out a way with Jinwoo and Hyunseok to take over from Jinwoo in Choidot’s kitchen, and his late mornings and afternoons and evenings are work work and work. Kyuhyun, back at work with his silver tongue spinning more money for old money corporations, and Taeyeon, in high demand for her live performances; are extremely busy people during the day and at night till dawn respectively.

Even now Taeyeon’s too busy for them, because her open mic nights are now packed. Her fans crowd the open sitting area, even though the pub owner is charging a higher-than-usual cover fee that comes with a drink and a paper bracelet stamped with “NIGHTS WITH TAEYEON”.

“If you look at it from this perspective, you actually lost,” Kyuhyun informs Changmin from where they’re sat at the bar counter over their glasses of Domaine Forey red, yet untouched and breathing. “Her popularity is crazy. It’s like she won the competition, rather than you. Look at her!” 

Taeyeon is, at this moment, swinging her guitar around to her back and snarling into the mic, one hand clutching the mic stand. The crowd is going wild. 

Kyuhyun marvels, “It’s like she’s holding a concert. A paid concert.”

Changmin pushes gently at his glass, eyes downturned towards the swirl of red, “says you, Mister ‘I’ve already released a ballad single with blessings from Jongkook’. Anyway. I always thought that it was just pure bad luck that she was dropped at the Sudden Death challenge.”

He looks up, only to receive Kyuhyun’s disbelieving stare. “I do. I told her that, too!”

Kyuhyun, who’s just raised his glass halfway to his lips, sets it back down with a clink. “And she didn’t take your head off for it?”

“She likes me too much to hurt me,” Changmin shrugs at Kyuhyun’s eye-roll. “Well. She did glare at me.”

“Mate, you’ve got to do something about this inferiority complex of yours,” Kyuhyun advises, swishing his glass to emphasise his point. “At some point in time it’ll start sounding fake and as though you’re humble-bragging, yeah?” 

“But I’m not!” Changmin nearly overturns his wine in his haste. Onstage, Taeyeon throws her head back and belts out a series of high notes climbing the chorus of her song. “And it’s not an inferiority complex when it’s the truth. It is pure bad luck! Listen to her.”

“The entire pub is listening,” Kyuhyun sips a mouthful of his red, and changes the subject too abruptly, or not abruptly at all, “speaking of your humble-bragging. How is Yunho?”

“He’s fine,” Changmin says automatically, and shies back a little, when Kyuhyun’s face stretches itself into a terrifyingly large grin. “Huh. Is he now.”

“You’re the one who asked,” Changmin stares at Kyuhyun, confused.

Then he gets it. “Oh, for the love of. Kyu! We text. That’s how I know. I text him, like I text you.”

“Please don’t text me like you text him,” Kyuhyun shivers with faux horror, his grin still stretched across his face. “I might throw up in my mouth. How do you two text? Is it just you sending different food pictures and him just sending you emojis and your own GIFs back? Didn’t you see the huge dump of stickers he flung into the Kakao group chat the other day, when you talked about your album thing? Do you think he has a folder in his mobile’s photo gallery just for Chef Shim GIFs and stickers?

“He doesn’t have a folder full of my stickers, fuck, he was just teasing. And I don’t mean I text you things I text him, I mean they’re both conversations, and you talk to your friends, right? We’re friends, we’re all friends, and-” Changmin looks at Kyuhyun’s face, and gives up. “Fine, go ahead. Laugh! Sure, laugh all you want. It’s fine.”

“Oh, I’m laughing, don’t worry about it,” Kyuhyun is sniggering, all sly and knowing, the bastard. “What do you mean, ‘friends’? I don’t want to be your friend like how you’re his. He might kill me, and I don’t even want to pork you.”

Changmin chokes on his wine, “No one is killing anyone. Nor ‘porking’. Like I want to pork you!”

“Our fans and the abundance of real-person fiction the Internet writes us in will beg to differ,” Kyuhyun wipes a non-existent tear from his eye.

He goes off in loud hoots when Changmin gapes at him, “they what?”

“Oh, friend, let me educate you,” Kyuhyun does finger guns at him, before finishing his wine with a cackle. The crowd behind them roars, as Taeyeon starts another set.

“Please don’t,” Changmin manages, clutching at his wineglass like a lifeline and shaking his head, but Kyuhyun is already pulling out his mobile and flicking to his browser, and subjecting Changmin for too long to the alarming literary phenomenon known as ‘shipping’, before Taeyeon comes over to rescue him during her break.

 

--

 

“For someone who’s a hundred million won richer, buying me one coffee is pretty cheap of you,” BoA says to him casually over their flat whites the following Monday afternoon.

Changmin makes a disbelieving noise low in his throat. “One hundred million won is clump change for you.”

She pauses in sipping her flat white, and blinks slowly at him. “No longer afraid of me, are you?”

“I still am ” Changmin says honestly. His flinch is only half-faked, when she reaches over to hit him very hard on the arm. 

“I have no idea why,” BoA sniffs. “I’m not frightening at all.”

“Er, right. That’s why Kyuhyun and Henry still can’t quite look you in the eye the other day when Soyoung bought us all gogigui,” Changmin informs her, and can’t help but laugh when she stops mid-drink to glare at him.

She’s got a moustache of white milk foam on her upper lip, and it makes her -Changmin can’t believe he’s thinking this of the woman his entire family had fawned over in his teenage years- look adorable.

“Careful,” BoA warns sweetly, “I might not be your judge anymore, but I’m guessing this coffee out of the blue isn’t just because you miss me.”

“Yeah, er, so. About that. So you’re also a director for SM Entertainment, right?” Changmin scratches his head and shivers, because the air-conditioning is strong in the cafe and there’s no other way he can think of to introduce the topic. 

The leisurely way BoA’s stirring at her coffee doesn’t help.

“So.” He widens his eyes, and gives BoA the limpid Wendy stare.

She scoffs, leaning back in her seat. “I don’t think so. Nice try, though.”

Changmin deflates. “No?”

"No." BoA blinks twice slowly, and suddenly her eyes are wide and wet and round and staring at him.

He reels back and nearly topples his own half-filled coffee mug. “Oh my God no no I’m sorry no I was wrong forgive me.”

Then her eyes crinkle, and she’s back to her usual beaming self. “You were saying?”

Changmin gapes at her, inordinately guilt-stricken. 

She’s discovered her foam moustache after all, and is dabbing at it daintily with a serviette. “Oh dear. Did I break you?”

“I take that back,” Changmin stirs, and stirs some more at his coffee, rattled. It's now a murky brown, foam dissipated from his vigorous whisking. “I am not afraid of you. I am terrified of you.” 

“That’s nice to know,” BoA hums, pleased, and turns a gimlet eye on him. “Now. Talk to me, because I’ve been hearing things.”

Changmin does.

 

--

 

“What you need,” offers BoA, after he’s finished spewing the entire dilemma at her and the dregs of their flat whites are cold and he stands to buy another round, only for her to press him back in his seat and then she buys him coffee instead, “is an experienced manager to help you fight these battles, and to help negotiate on your behalf.” 

“But I told you,” Changmin squints at her, one hand curved around his piccolo latte, “I’m just a cook. What do I need a manager for? I don’t want to be an idol. I have a full-time job and I’m too old. I’m thirty-two years old!”

She just looks at him, with a straight face.

Changmin thinks about what he’s said, and tacks on hurriedly, “I don’t mean you! You’re you.”

“While that’s flattering,” she murmurs, mild enough, “I’m also thirty-four, lad.”

“Yes, but you started at thirteen,” Changmin points out, words tumbling over each other, “and you’ve been active all through the years as a top idol in Asia so it’s hardly the same thing. I grew up with your posters hanging in my living room, some of my family outings were to your fanmeets and you know I don’t mean it that way! It’s your career and you are- you’re amazing at it, it’s just that I-”

“Changmin,” BoA says, laughing. “Stop. I’m just teasing. I get it.”

“Oh,” Changmin presses his lips shut, embarrassed. “Okay. Yeah.”

“I wonder if it can be considered a success story if I say that twenty years after I debuted as an idol,” BoA muses wickedly, manicured fingernails tapping against the table, “here I sit in one of my favourite cafes in Seoul, having coffee on a beautiful spring day with my fanboy, who’s just won an inter-country singing competition in East Asia, of which I was a judge of and he was on my team, and is now arguing with me the definition of ‘idol’, because my agency wants him to release a solo album but he’s refusing on account of his age.”

“When you put it like that.” Changmin slumps back in his seat and runs a hand through his hair, embarrassed. "But it's more. I'm a cook."

It’s been more than a month and thus his hair is growing out from the cut that Yoonju had the hairstylists give him, for Sing! Idol.

He sits up straight in the next second. “Wait. My mother will fight me if you say I’m your fanboy. She’ll say I’m only copying her and her devotion to you is greater and I’ll be nothing without her.”

“She is correct in that,” BoA grins, and sobers. “And don’t try to distract me. You need a manager. Get one.”

“I don’t even know any managers,” Changmin starts, and pauses. 

He doesn’t trust the gleam that’s entered BoA’s eyes. Not the slightest.

 

-- 

 

Changmin finds out what the gleam means in a week later, when BoA shows up at Choidot after lunch service, and with a hulking man in tow. 

Luckily, since Changmin is still transitioning into the role of head chef, Jinwoo’s still around and Hyunseok’s more hands-on than usual and it means neither Sehyeong nor the new stages will set the kitchen on fire if Changmin walks away for a little while. 

He can’t quite walk away at once, however. There’s a bit of a frenzy, when the younger boys realise it’s The BoA and not Thing #1 or Thing #2; since no other girls will visit Changmin at Choidot. 

A bloodbath nearly occurs. It subsides only after BoA offers selfies and autographs to everyone, even taciturn Jinwoo, and Sunhwa who’s shrunk in the corner with her hands pasted over her mouth in a suirfeit of emotion.

Changmin just covers his face silently with both hands, when even Hyunseok loses his usual cool to crowd eagerly for a picture.

That eats up too much of her time, so they’re only able to have a rapid conversation, her and the man and Changmin, but BoA leaves satisfied well before Changmin needs to start dinner prep.  

Changmin comes away more than a little shell-shocked.

Hyunseok takes one look at his face and calls out to Jinwoo, “yeah, no, I think you should head dinner service today before he burns all the wagyu.”

It feels only natural to text Yunho after, when he’s up on the rooftop changing from his uniform back out into street clothes. Jinwoo had gone a step further (“Go home, you’re useless to me like that!”) and shooed him off from service after all.

Unexpectedly and for the first time in a while, Changmin has a free evening. He swipes into the chat window he has with Yunho, and into the message field, so BoA gave me her manager. Or gave me to her manager.

(・・?! is Yunho’s near-instantaneous response.

Changmin reckons he’s probably in between classes, at his dance academy, to respond this fast. 

His name is Kyungjae and he said I can pay him in kimchi gimbap rolls, Changmin sends. I’m not sure if he was joking, because BoA told him I work in molecular gastronomy. Then again he also said he eats SM Enter. upper management for breakfast daily…

LOL, comes Yunho’s response, after a minute. Then he’s just a grey box of ellipses for too long, before a halting, kimchi gimbap sounds brilliant though ㅠㅠㅠㅠ comes through. 

Changmin stares at his mobile, a niggling suspicion brewing at the back of his mind. 

Then he flicks to the screen for his contacts, and taps at Yunho’s number.

“Hello,” Yunho picks up on the first ring. “I thought you hate ringing people!”

“When was the last time that you ate,” Changmin says, rather than asks.

“On that,” Yunho hums, after a couple of beats. “I had to teach all morning, so.”

“When was the last time you ate,” Changmin repeats.

“Er,” Yunho sounds sheepish. “Dinner?”

“Last night?” Changmin brings his phone away, to check at the time on his mobile. Then he shoves it back against his ear, voice rising in agitation, “it’s ten minutes to four!”

“I mean,” Yunho says very quickly, “I’ve been drinking water, and I had a noon class for intermediate krumping, and then I kind of lost track of time-”

“Are your eating habits always this poor?” Changmin demands in horror, as he clatters down the stairs, and back into Choidot. “Why didn’t I know this? You weren’t like this when we were all living together! You ate!” 

“The production team was very timely at feeding us the basics,” Yunho chirps, self-consciousness giving way to amusement. “And you were very good at feeding us for the rest of the time.”

“I can understand skipping breakfast for some people, I suppose it’ll be hard for you to dance on a full stomach. But lunch-” Changmin starts, and thinks of Yunho mashing at ham with a knife and trying to beat eggs with a spoon and spilling that everywhere. “-Never mind.”

“Oh, I’ll get something after this, it’s pretty close to dinnertime,” Yunho makes an admirable attempt to sound like he actually is sorry, although Changmin doubts it, and says so to him. 

With the sound of Yunho’s laughter in his ears, he cups a hand over the lower half of his mobile and asks Manjae, who happens to be at the entrance to the freezer, “do we still have roasted seaweed sheets?”

“Changmin,” Manjae says, nonplussed. “Didn’t Jinwoo tell you to go home to recover your nerves.”

“I’m going,” Changmin flaps an impatient hand at him. “Supplies check.”

“Oh! The gim? Yeah, we do,” Manjae scratches at his head, “Seonyeob said you wanted to try out the idea of a bouillabaisse temaki for the summer menu, so I made Yongsung order extra this week.”

“Good,” Changmin squeezes past him, “which drawer is it in? We have pork belly too, right?”

“Yes, but you also said it’s for the Basque pintxos,” Manjae trails behind him, and watches as Changmin gathers a little bit of everything he has in mind. “Do I get bribes?” 

“What bribes,” Changmin asks absentmindedly, as he checks the marbling on the belly. Not too fatty. Good.

“If my incoming head chef is rummaging around the pantry filching supplies for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with dinner service tonight,” Manjae reasons glibly, “and I happen to be an eyewitness. Well! My silence may need to be bought.” 

Changmin just pauses at the pantry entrance, ingredients collated in a basket.

He turns, and raises an eyebrow at Manjae, slow. 

“Okay yeah no I don’t know what I was thinking, don’t look at me like I’m a stage who fucked up scaling the fish, sorry sorry sorry,” Manjae babbles, hands up in front of him and backtracking against the wall.

 

--

 

It takes him about half an hour to wrap things up, but Changmin’s in his car and buckled in before the clock reads half past four.

That’s an interesting task in itself, trying to navigate Thursday late afternoon traffic in Gangnam. It’s something that Changmin doesn’t have much experience with at this time of the day.

So he creeps along in the lane, whilst also checking his GPS as well as the address he filched off of Naver for too many times, to make sure he doesn’t end up driving in the other direction to Jamsil, instead.

Luckily, Seocho- dong is near enough to Cheongdam, and he makes good time.

Changmin pulls up to a large, red-bricked building that has its old-fashioned exterior belied by the very shiny, very metallic and very large letters running across its facade: SEOCHO DANCE ACADEMY.

The tiny parking lot off adjacent to it has a couple of empty parking spaces, and Changmin slips gratefully into one. 

He’s halfway out of the car before it occurs to him to look at the rear-view mirror.

So he pulls back in and shit, his hair is messy, his stubble is growing out from when he shaved in the morning, his nose is shiny from sweat. He supposes his jumper and jeans are neat enough, but the black work trainers on his feet are scuffed from the kitchen. 

It’s a far cry from the immaculately groomed stranger-in-the-mirror Sing! Idol’s terrific -and terrifying- glam team turns him out regularly as, for the past half-year. 

For just one split second, Changmin almost misses Yoonju. Almost.

This is something he’d never thought of himself before. But it seems like he’s rather vain. 

Half-sighing and half-laughing, Changmin pulls a face at his own face in the mirror. He shoves his growing bangs back up against his forehead, and exits his car with his purpose for coming here clutched in his hand, instead of heading back to Jayang-dong and to home.

 

--

 

The receptionist offers him a polite smile, but Changmin barely gets to open his mouth before a loud hoot sounds behind him, “Chef Bambi!”

Changmin staggers forward at the weight and force of something heavy on his back, and barely just catches himself from face-planting into the polished wood of the reception counter. 

He can’t quite turn, but that voice. It’s Hyukjae, of course.

“Don’t call me that,” is his response, checking hurriedly to make sure he hasn’t dropped the dosirak in his hands.

Hyukjae’s got both arms around Changmin’s neck from behind. Changmin flaps a futile hand at the stranglehold as Hyukjae says breezily, “what? Why? The entire nation is calling you that.”

“Can’t- Breathe-” Changmin wheezes.

“Oh, look at you, all breathless at the sight of me,” Hyukjae croons, and finally lets go of Changmin, only to crow so loudly that the poor receptionist jumps, “what is that!” 

“Nothing,” Changmin says, on pure reflex, and then curses his brain-to-mouth filter when Hyukjae’s interest is clearly perked by the rejoinder.

“Sorry Jieun- Nothing! Why don’t we see what nothing is, then,” Hyukjae starts towards him with a glint in his eyes and wide-open arms, but the clock behind him reads fifteen minutes to five.

At this rate, Yunho might go a full twenty-four hours without proper food, and Changmin’s not interested in being an accomplice to that

So he opens the metal lunchbox, and filches a piece to shove into Hyukjae’s open mouth. 

Hyukjae’s hands, already raised and groping towards him, pause in mid-air. He chews.

“Oooooorgprfle,” Hyukjae says, eyes wide.

“Yunho,” Changmin tells him, and tries to sound less rude. “Please?”

Hyukjae’s mouth is still busily chewing. He swallows. “Left.” 

Changmin turns left. 

There’s a pair of cherry oak doors, and a set of stairs winding up to a second storey. He turns back to Hyukjae, who looks expectant, and points a finger back at his own jaws, open again and empty.

Changmin jams another piece into his mouth.

“Up the stairs,” Hyukjae’s words are garbled, but still discernible. “Office to the right.” 

“Thanks, Hyuk. Don’t choke,” Leaning over, Changmin gives him a good proper whack on the back, very innocently and just in case. 

He starts for the stairs as Hyukjae doubles over from the force of it, howling with a mouth half-filled with gim and rice and meat. 

 

--

 

Changmin raps on the burnished mahogany of the office door, and opens the door at Yunho’s cheerful, “Enter!”

He’s barely got the door open, and Yunho’s already speaking, gaze still glued to his laptop.

“Taemin, are you heading out to have dinner? Do you think you can get me a half-foot Subway sandwi-” Sat at his desk and surrounded by sheaves and sheaves of things and piles of books, and in exercise wear with a red plaid shirt tossed on over that, Yunho rattles the words off halfway without pausing.

Then the answering silence makes him look up.

His mouth falls open. “Changmin!”

“Subway sandwiches are a crime to cuisine,” Changmin says, narrowing his eyes at Yunho. 

He comes into the office proper, when it seems like Yunho’s not going to invite him or do anything except for fixing him with a bug-eyed stare, his shock magnified by thin-rimmed spectacles. Changmin slows a little in his steps, “I didn’t know you wear spectacles.”

“I- I don’t need them unless I’m working on curriculum plans… On the computer,” Yunho returns.

His eyes are round with surprise behind said spectacles and his mouth is hanging open, even as he tracks Changmin walking over to his desk. “You’re here. I didn’t think you even know where our academy is located!”

“It’s easy enough to search it up online, when you and Hyukjae and Taemin are forever wearing your own school’s merchandise,” Changmin snorts, exasperated. 

He puts the dosirak on his desk and pulls the lid off again, with minimum fuss. “Eat this.”

Yunho looks like he can’t quite decide what to do with his face. “Changminnie, you’re here.”

“Yes, yes,” Changmin prods a finger at the dosirak, then at Yunho’s sleeve-clad arm. “I’m not bragging, but they’re better than sandwiches from Subway. I had to fob Hyukjae off with two pieces, but I made extra in the first place. So. There should still be enough for a portion.”

Yunho blinks up at him for too long, eyes still wide and startled. Then he lowers his gaze to the opened lunchbox, and to the neat rolls of kimchi-samgyeopsal-gimbap sitting inside. 

“Oh,” Yunho says, and smiles up at him, soft. “Oh, Changminnie.”

The sunshine in his grin is blinding.

It makes Changmin’s breath catch, and the words trapped at the back of his throat -since the night of Sing! Idol’s finale- bubble up.

Years later, Changmin looks back on this moment, and blames what happens next on that.

"It was the way the sun reflected off of Yunho's veneers," he will say, rueful. "I didn't stand a chance. Too blinding. It broke my brain."

He leans over Yunho's desk now, and looks him in the eye. "I love you." 

 

--

 

Chapter Text

 

Yunho can’t stop blinking at Changmin like he’s experiencing a mirage.

Like Changmin is the mirage.

Like the words he’s just said, as matter-of-fact as though he’s commenting on the weather -calm as he pleases!- are the mirage.

Yunho feels slow, and off-balance. Maybe he's dreaming, and they're still back at the Sing! Idol mansion, and that Changmin he knew then could hardly stand to look him in the eye.

This Changmin right now is still staring at him. His gaze is martial, and almost glaring. His hair’s all windblown by the spring wind. His eyebrows are drawn close together over his nose. He’s got stubble and absolutely no makeup on and he looks so boyish and maybe too angry over the fact that Yunho hasn’t eaten that Yunho aches.

Weeks ago, he had left his almost-confession as that at Sing! Idol, because Changmin had been panicky and fragile and disbelieving over his own efforts nabbing Changmin his rightful win. 

November With Love was meant to be for, and about him, without any expectation of reciprocity.

In the face of Changmin's panic attack, being anything less than upfront about it didn't seem to matter anymore. Yunho just wanted to make him see.

That Changmin is worthy of his own win. That he is worthy of the effort from someone feeling thus about him.

Yunho’s never expected anything back. He knows Changmin is shy. It's habit, Yunho knows, and wrought from a lifetime of it. Changmin's not truly comfortable with Yunho. Not yet.

It's only been months. Yunho can be patient.

Some things are worth waiting for. These past weeks have been a surprise unto themselves anyway; his and Changmin’s friendship. He’s content, and happy enough that even with Sing! Idol finished and largely out of the equation of their lives, there’s still a Yunho-and-Changmin somehow, in some way.

But Changmin has just marched into Yunho's office. He didn't even think Changmin would know where their dance academy is located. Maybe Hyukjae had said something?

Changmin has just marched into Yunho's office, and uttered the three words that Yunho had never expected he would say.

Almost angrily, too. 

Yunho had assumed -hoped- Changmin had felt something for him. Feels. Hopefully. 

Never in his wildest dreams would he have hoped that Changmin will actually articulate his affections(?) out loud like this.

Yes. Maybe Yunho’s dreaming. Everything seems improbable enough that maybe, just maybe Yunho's back in his flat and in his bed, and it's morning and he's very late for today's classes because he's slept through his alarm. 

Without taking his eyes off of Changmin, Yunho reaches to push up the right sleeve of his plaid shirt, and pinches very hard at his own arm. 

“Ouch,” Yunho says, gobsmacked.

It hurts. He's not dreaming.

Changmin is the one to look away from him, squinting a little as he smacks Yunho’s fingers off of his arm. “What are you doing? You’ve broken the skin!”

“Er,” Yunho blinks, and blinks. He's not dreaming. “I’m not dreaming.”

He watches in complete and utter fascination, as Changmin pauses at where he’s nearly got his nose plastered against Yunho’s forearm with how close he’s bending to it.

Then he flushes a complete and brilliant shade of red. His eyes have lost that gleam of belligerence. He had looked as though he was willing to deck Yunho and 'I love you' was a declaration of war.

He doesn't look belligerent now. 

Yunho’s brain has clearly checked out at the sight, because his mouth goes, independent and a little lost, "oh. Red."

Changmin’s face is red. His ears are red. Even his neck is crimson, and provides a very interesting shade of contrast to the pale green of his jumper.

“You look like a Christmas ornament, but it’s spring. Bit early, don't you think,” his mouth offers again.

He doesn't think it is possible, but Changmin turns redder. He backs away a little from Yunho’s desk, which isn’t something Yunho wants.

Not when Changmin is the one to barge into Yunho's academy, and his office. And it is Changmin who had opened his mouth to say such things.

It's on him, then. Yunho had wanted to give him space, and time. Changmin clearly has other ideas. 

Yunho stands up. His chair clatters.

Changmin takes another step backwards. He’s started to stutter. It’s adorable. He's adorable. 

Maybe it’s wrong of Yunho to describe a fully grown six foot two adult man, very slightly taller than him even, as ‘adorable’. But he’s not sorry about it.

“I’m. I don’t. I’m sorry. Wait. I’m not sorry. I just. I have no. I don’t.” Changmin is saying now, stuttering, and fuck yes he’s adorable. 

Somehow, Yunho manages to reel his brain back into the driver’s seat, even though there’s a part of him that wants to go crouch in a corner of his office and gibber because shy sweet Changmin -his Changminnie!- barged into his office to feed him(?) and state brazenly(!) his declaration of love(?!?!).

He goes around the side of his desk, and out to where Changmin’s still spouting random words in Korean, and backed against the closed door to his office, and steps near, nearer.

Until his trainers are touching Changmin’s trainers, and Changmin’s finally tapering off, thank goodness.

“Hello,” Yunho murmurs. “Sorry. Let’s try this again, and properly.”

“H-hi,” Changmin returns. His eyes are big and brown and round and entirely focused on Yunho. 

“You have very pretty eyes,” Yunho tells him. His voice sounds too grave and solemn even to his own ears.

Unpolished and raw. Real.

But then again, that’s always how Yunho feels his feelings are, for Changmin. Raw. Real. Awkward, and not hammed up for the cameras.

“T-thank you,” Changmin returns. His voice is very soft. It reverberates like thunder in Yunho’s ears. “You’ve got very long eyelashes. They’re very straight. And long.”

Yunho nudges his trainers against Changmin’s. Then he leans in, until the blades of their noses are barely touching each other. His pulse is a roaring-loud beat in his head.

There are two bold flags of color high up on Changmin’s cheeks, pink.

“I’m going to kiss you now,” Yunho says evenly, just so he is clear enough, and Changmin doesn’t misunderstand him, because that has a tendency to happen, and he'll be damned if something like it should occur now. “Step on my foot really hard, if you don’t want me to.” 

“What. Why are you telling me to hurt you,” Changmin is sputtering again.

He stops talking then, because Yunho has got their mouths both preoccupied with other things. Together. 

 

--

 

After, Yunho can’t stop grinning foolishly. He knows he probably looks like an idiot. 

Somehow they’ve moved back to his desk. Changmin is looking away from him, and stabbing a finger pointedly at the time on the clock, which reads half past five in the evening. 

“Eat!” He’s saying crossly, gaze still averted. The accusing finger moves from pointing at Yunho’s clock, to the opened dosirak. “The gimbap will get cold- the rice will get hard- If you don’t want them, I’m sure Hyukjae will appreciate mmphffffrgh.”

Changmin's ears are all pink. They're cute, like their owner.

Yunho backs off after one last lingering kiss, and eats. 

 

--

 

“So. Are we doing this?” Changmin asks him suddenly, after Yunho’s polished off the gimbap with great voracity in a minuscule amount of time.

He's a little surprised at himself. He was hungrier than he realised. 

Yunho looks at him, mid-chug and his water bottle in his hand. The little smile that was on Changmin’s face when he watched Yunho eat is gone. The other man’s eyes are huge now, and he’s shrinking a little into himself. 

Changmin's hair is messy. Yunho was the one who made it messy.

He feels a little proud of the fact, and a lot disbelieving of what they’ve just done. 

Now Yunho tilts the bottle back and away from himself, and says around a mouthful of water, “say that again?”

“Us,” Changmin clarifies.

He’s leaning slightly against Yunho’s desk, and his fingers are white with pressure, around the empty lunch box. The look on his face is rather uncertain. “This. Do you want an ‘us’?”

Yunho chokes on his water, and maybe dribbles too much of it onto his own shirt, which is the single most unattractive thing one can possibly do in front of the man one loves, and right after one has just made out with him, too. 

His nose is smarting from the water and the pressure, and he’s hacking the water back up. “I-” 

Changmin’s already grabbed for a wad of tissues, and he’s dabbing at Yunho’s face and Yunho’s shirt too, and going all flustered, “sorry, was that too, you know I’m not good at- talking- I’m sorry, shit, your shirt’s all wet, sorry- this is so dumb of me-”

“No, no,” Yunho coughs, and clears his throat. He catches Changmin's hands, and gets ahold of them. “I’m the one who’s dumb. I shouldn’t have choked.”

Changmin’s still on a roll. “No, no, it was me, I shouldn’t have, sorry, you must have been really surprised, I don’t even know if I-”

“Changminnie,” Yunho says.

The surprise is fading. In its place is just Yunho’s heartbeat in his ears, and a fizzy, light feeling that must be happiness.

He feels a little dazed, and it’s an effort to marshal himself to actually say, “yes. I’ll like there to be an ‘us’.”

“-I mean, sure, you sang that song, and we just did what we just did but. I’ve dated before, I have, but it’s never been like this, and I’ve been told I’m not a good boyfriend, I get too lost in my head sometimes, and I'm just not very good with words and I had chefs tell me I'm high-strung and my job has crazy hours, and your job’s crazy too so I don’t know how we’ll cross that hurdle, but I want to try, I think we will work, I really do, I really really like you, I love you, and-” Changmin visibly gulps back his words. He's staring at Yunho. “What did you say?”

Changmin's eyes are really big and brown and shiny. This close, and at the risk of sounding cheesy in his own head, Yunho can actually see himself reflected back, from those depths. 

He leans forward, and knocks his forehead gently against Changmin’s.

Changmin has stopped talking. His fingers are like ice in Yunho’s hands.

His shy boy is being brave, and it's for him, and for them. 

“I’ll really,” Yunho laces their fingers together, and smiles at him, aching and giddy and happy. “I’ll really like there to be an ‘us’, too.”

 

--

 

The people they inform first aren't any of their nearest and dearest, but rather Changmin’s new manager.

Or, part-time manager, per Changmin’s protestations and the man’s calm refutations.

“You’re not really my manager,” Changmin is saying with exasperation to the man. (“Kyungjae,” he introduces himself to Yunho. “Won Kyungjae, hello. I watched you in Sing! Idol, too. Very stable pipes even while you were running around on stage.”) “BoA just said you should be, but you know I really have no interest in embarking on a proper career in showbiz, it’s just for this album-”

“BoA said I should be,” the man repeats calmly, cutting Changmin off. “She also happens to pay my salary. So I am.”

They’re sat in the little cafe that is apparently BoA’s favourite or so Changmin tells him, and in a tiny nook at the back for maximum privacy.

Changmin’s right knee is touching Yunho’s left, and Yunho’s got their hands linked underneath the table.

“Yeah, but,” Changmin scrubs a hand across the back of his neck. “Well, we’re really here because he’s of the mind that I should let you guys know first, but we don’t really have a contract, I didn’t sign anything except for the thing on the album, and you know that you’re helping me front the discussions with SM on how to change it, so I don’t really-”

“And it’s a very good decision to make,” Kyungjae says, amiable. “I’m very happy you two thought to reach out to me first.”

Changmin’s blinking at that, silent for the time being. 

Yunho just looks in between them, intrigued and slightly in awe. 

It’s the first time he’s seen Changmin so adeptly, well, managed. Not even the Sing! Idol executive producers did it so adroitly.

Kyungjae takes a little sip of his cafe latte, to continue, “given how Mister Jung is also under contract to work with SM Entertainment, it’s very good indeed that you’ve let me know the soonest. Things are more easily managed, this way.”

Changmin is still blinking, except he’s turned towards Yunho now, and his eyes are very wide.

“Ah,” Yunho straightens, slightly worried that Changmin will misunderstand, “it’s not anything concrete yet. You know I work as a choreographer with them before, right? In addition to teaching at the academy. I’ve done a few of their dance hits for their current roster of groups over the years-”

“Be it as it may,” Kyungjae interrupts smoothly, “I think we should also recall, Mister Jung, the current interests of upper management also lies in working with you in an expanded function beyond that- in a singing capacity-”

There’s something complicated going on in Changmin’s face, as Kyungjae says that.

“Nothing has been nailed down yet,” Yunho tells him, slightly anxious. He really doesn’t want Changmin to misunderstand. “Nothing. Changminnie, I just thought I’ll tell you after things are more concrete, because it’s all just been casual chats, and I have a day job too, like you.”

“No, but,” Changmin erupts. “This is- good! Oh, Yun, why didn’t you tell me earlier? This makes everything so much easier!”

Yunho finds himself the one blinking now, back at Changmin.

He likes being called Yun. He likes that Changmin is calling him Yun.

Meanwhile, Changmin’s leaning across the table, and chattering away at Kyungjae, the most animated and cheerful he's been since they sat down an hour ago, “remember when we first started talking about how I want to do a group album with Sing! Idol’s top four? Well! That should be easier done now, right? Since Kyuhyun’s already done a digital single, and now that SM is already talking to Yunho, we just need to rope Amber in-”

“What,” Yunho tries to wrap his mind around the sudden shift in the conversation.

 

--

 

He finds himself unable to stop looking at Changmin.

They’ve just said their goodbyes to Kyungjae, and they’re on the way walking to Changmin’s car.

It’s the afternoon and Yunho’s got Taemin covering for his morning classes, but he needs to get back to his evening roster. He knows Changmin needs to be at Choidot for dinner service prep as well. 

Their steps are brisk, as a result.

“You really want to do this,” he says, to the back of Changmin’s head. His- Special friend? Boyfriend? Partner? They haven’t really articulated labels, other than Changmin almost going incoherent with giddiness when Yunho had said ‘yes’, to being part of an ‘us’. There was more spouting of random Korean words at that; until Yunho had put a stop to it with his mouth.

It still feels unreal. The memory of Changmin he has in his head; of Changmin leaning over his desk in early evening, hair messy and face bare with stubble and all of that gilded by the warm ways of the spring sunshine slanting in through Yunho’s office blinds.

And saying ‘I love you’ to him. To Yunho.

Changmin’s looking at him now with that same soft look, slowing down at the side of the little road. There’s no one else around except for a row of parked cars. “What?”

Because Yunho can now, he takes a step closer.

And then another step, until he can lift his hand and gently finger at the curve of Changmin’s ear.

It’s warm velvet to the touch. “Your ears are red.”

Changmin’s head goes back a little at that, and his face flushes a shade of crimson, and he starts stammering not unlike the first few weeks Yunho met him, back in the Sing! Idol mansion. “You can’t just why did you we are in public Jung Yunho this is the road you can’t it’s public anyone can see why do you oh fuck how do you how do I go back to work like this it’s not fair why are you.”

Yunho smiles at him, slow. He pulls gently at Changmin’s earlobe.

It makes Changmin squeak. “What do you even want to do!”

“I was just going to say that you really want to make not-your-album with us,” Yunho informs him, enjoying how Changmin’s slowly regaining his usual tan, and his usual level of coherency, “but this is more educational. I didn’t know I could make you blush like that. By touching your ears.”

He finds himself enjoying it even more, when the colour rushes back to Changmin’s ears, and his cheeks too, and down his neck in a spread of mottled red. 

“You,” Changmin bites off the sound, “they’re- they’re sensitive.”

“To me?” Yunho asks him, just to see the flush spread further.

He takes pity on Changmin, when the other man just bites his own bottom lip hard, and stares back at him, all big brown eyes and wind-tousled hair and lips compressed into a thin line. 

“Hey,” Yunho reaches for Changmin’s hands. “Sorry. I’m just teasing.” 

“People are,” Changmin darts a glance to either side of them, and at the road. But he lets Yunho hold his hands, anyway, “people can see.”

“There’s no one around,” Yunho tells him, and looks to the side too, to check again.

It’s true. There’s no one else around. No other humans, in any case. Though there’s a spring bird warbling really loudly somewhere up a tree off to their right.

Changmin follows suit in looking, too.

Whilst he is thus distracted, Yunho leans forward, and presses a quick kiss against his lips. 

Changmin kisses him back. It is not just a quick kiss against his lips.

“Oh,” Yunho says faintly, when they’ve come up for air. His knees feel a little wobbly. 

Changmin just grins at him, a little wicked and a lot shy. His eyes are uneven little arches again, and he looks absolutely pleased with himself.

 

--

 

Yunho drops a text to his mother one evening as spring rolls tentatively into the beginnings of summer, because it doesn’t sit right with him to keep anything of this magnitude from her, for long.

Mum, I took your advice, he types, intentionally vague, and presses Send.

Her reply comes barely fifteen minutes later. Does that mean I can’t have his picture as my wallpaper anymore? It should be fine for me to have my son-in-law’s photograph as my screensaver, shouldn't it? Don’t tell Jihye. I don’t want Seokhee’s feelings to be hurt.

It makes him choke a little on air, so he picks up his mobile to ring her instead.

“Mum,” he says, half-amused, half-horrified, “while I’m glad that we’re mother and son because you can clearly read my mind. Why are you saying such things, he’s not your son-in-law. Don't you dare say such things to Changminnie! You'll scare him off!”

“Not yet,” is her sly rejoinder crackling in his ear, “if you know what’s good for you,” and trailing off.

Yunho finds himself covering his face with a hand, and just laughs, and laughs.

 

--

 

Apparently there is a betting pool between the members of Changmin’s family regarding them, and with Changmin excluded from being in the know. 

Yunho’s completely unaware of it. Until they spring it on him, the first time Changmin brings him home to have dinner with them at Yunho's request.

“What for,” Changmin had scratched at his head one night when he came over to have a late supper with Yunho at the dance academy, after Choidot had finished up for the night. “We’re all in Seoul, you’ll meet them soon enough. My sisters have a bad habit of popping up at Choidot, and so do you.”

“I just want to say hello properly,” Yunho had insisted to him. “It’s only respectful. Like you said, we’re all in Seoul.”

Changmin had gaped at him, then. “You and I clearly have very different ideas of what respect entails. It’s a madhouse. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he mutters again urgently now, into Yunho’s ear. They're in the living room of Changmin's family home. “You can’t run away from me after this. It’s not fair. You're the one asking to be fed to the wolves. You brought this on yourself.”

“Stop snivelling, boy,” Changmin’s mother says sharply from where she's perched straight-backed on the sofa. “You're always mumbling like that. It’s unbecoming. If there’s anything to be said, you can say it to all of us.”

“Oh, Mother,” Changmin’s smirking at her, sharp and cutting in a way he rarely is, except to her. “I was just telling Yunho that he’s not allowed to judge me by your quarrelsome personality and your peevish behaviour.”

She draws a breath, outraged. But then Yunho bows at her, and she pauses, one finger already raised to point at Changmin’s nose.

Pulling her finger back, Changmin's mother, in one decisive movement, turns her back onto Changmin.

Yunho smiles at her.

“Ah, Yunho,” she gushes, voice instantly warm and affectionate. She’s reaching out with both hands and Yunho gently takes them in his.

Changmin’s mother’s hands are slightly callused and chilled. The way her eyes crinkle as she smiles is so like Changmin. Or to be more accurate, Changmin's eyes, whenever he smiles, are so like hers. “How are you, dear lad. Let me look at you! You’re too thin. Has my spiteful firstborn not been feeding you? Why do you even keep him around? What is this I've heard about the little shit seducing you?”

Changmin is gawping at them both. He looks horrified. 

“Auntie,” Yunho hails her, cheerful. “I’m so glad to properly greet you like this. It was tough to sit and really chat at the finale. Did you know when I first met your son, he was on the phone with you?”

“Excuse me,” Changmin interjects, and pulls at Yunho’s sleeve in a misguided attempt to retrieve Yunho. Yunho clicks his tongue at the tugging. “I am still here.” 

“Were we really,” Changmin’s mother says to Yunho, in a voice much, much more pleasant than what she has been aiming at her own flesh and blood all night so far. 

She reaches out, and picks her son's hand off of Yunho's arm like she would an insect, and continues talking to Yunho without even a pause.

It's Changmin's smile right there on her face. The one he wears when he's really happy after cooking for all of them or belting out a high note or after playing a melody on his guitar without mistakes. It's toothy, and winsome. “The horrid boy said useless things, no doubt. I’m so sorry, Yunho. It’s a wonder how you weren’t shocked by him! He’s a bit of a barbarian. Only knows how to scurry around in the kitchen, and can’t be bothered with anything else.”

“Oh, I was,” Yunho informs her, beaming. “Shocked by how much he loves you.”

She’s speechless after that particular rejoinder of his. They are ushered in for dinner by Changmin's father, who looks as though he's trying very hard not to laugh.

“I think you’ve broken her,” the sister (that Changmin introduces to him grudgingly as Thing #2) says, conspiratorial. “That’s fine. She’ll be up and running again in no time. We just have-”

“-some questions,” the other sister -who was reluctantly introduced as Thing #1- takes over. “One question. But have some of the fish first. Mother slaved over it all afternoon. Only the best for our Yunho, she said.”

“All right,” Yunho tells her amiably and does so. His bowl is already piled high with bits and bobs Changmin’s put there. Thing #2 nods in satisfaction at the large chunk of fish Yunho has got clasped between his chopsticks.

Privately, he resolves to find out their names -not from Changmin, who is clearly of no help, and not from them- before the night is out.

“So,” Thing #1 folds her hands together. “Who confessed? Enquiring minds want very much to know.”

Next to him, Changmin’s got his head in his hands. He's murmuring something very softly under his breath, and the tone of it sounds self-soothing.

Yunho leaves him alone to it, and savours the fish instead. He's no connoisseur, but even he knows it's done to exacting perfection.

After he’s swallowed, he says, very placidly, “Changminnie did.”

Changmin's murmuring halts.

“What!” Thing #2 falls over in her chair. 

Thing #1 is bug-eyed in shock, and demanding: “When!”

“After Sing! Idol ended,” Yunho reaches over, and pats at Changmin’s knee.

Changmin himself had looked up when his youngest sister had fallen over. He looks torn between gaping at Yunho for volunteering such private information, and being pleased at how Yunho's managed to silence the women in his family and their invasive questioning with just a few strategic concessions of the truth.

“Oh,” Changmin’s father -who was hitherto silently finishing up his rice and content to let the conversation be dominated by his wife and daughters- looks up at that. His brows lift.

Even though Changmin had told Yunho before that he looks more like his mother, Yunho can see hints of Changmin in his gaze; and hints of him in Changmin. “Guess I win the bet, then.”

“What bet,” Changmin says, very loudly.

His father is leaning back, and folding his hands over his stomach. He looks a little like a smug well-fed cat who’s got the canary and the cream, and like how Changmin had looked when he had placed a perfectly risen strawberry soufflé pancake in front of Yunho a few dinners ago. “Pay up, all of you."

To Changmin, he hums a gratified, "that'll do, lad," before nodding at Yunho, "and it is good to meet you, Yunho.”

“Uncle.” Yunho bows his head in his seat, and continues watching all of them, transfixed. It's almost like he's sitting in on a sitcom, except that this is real life.

Next to him, Changmin's making loud noises of disbelief. He's so agitated that he's jittering his knee, "did you just quote Babe at me? Am I your pig now?"

Right, Yunho’s still got his hand on Changmin’s knee. He pats at it again, and rests his palm against rough denim encasing the bony joint.

“Wait what what how. Did you people bet on us why even do you do this,” Changmin exclaims in full-blown outrage, while his mother hits him very hard on his arm and regains her speech abilities simultaneously, because “useless boy, you couldn’t even save some of my money from your father, useless! Oh, Yunho, Yunho, I’m so glad you took the chance on this terrible spawn of mine, thank you so much for letting him meet you in this life-” 

“Dad won the pot?” Thing #1 is also very loud in her disbelief. It must be a family trait. She's also clearly intent on ignoring the family drama occurring right next to her -which must be another family trait- in favour of sorting out more important matters. Such as monetary issues.

“I guess Dad won,” Thing #2 says, equally shocked.

 

--

 

“Just so you know. I like your family,” Yunho tells Changmin over the phone a few days after that, when they’re both at work and on break. “They’re sweet.”

“If,” Changmin returns dourly, “by ‘sweet’, you actually mean ‘a cesspit of unmitigated insanity’. Then yes, Yun, they’re bloody fucking sweet. Like sour candy. Manjae! Not the crawfish, please. Get me the blue Bostons.”

“Sweet,” Yunho insists, pressing his mobile to his ear, and nodding. Not that Changmin can see him. “Just like you. I really like them.”

Changmin’s silent. Blushing, no doubt. Then he offers, softer, “I like your mum, too. She’s sweet.”

“That she is,” Yunho can’t help but concur. Because she is, and because he still remembers how Changmin had looked at her in the market at Jayang-dong, hopelessly charmed, he goes, “Maybe my mum did all the hard work in helping me hook you.”

“Yunho!” Changmin squalls down the line. He's all squeaky again.

Yunho can’t quite contain his snort. “No? She got you to give her your number in one conversation. You let her put your face as her wallpaper! You don't even allow me to do that.”

“You could- if you want- you haven't even asked- we didn't talk- I just don’t think- Your wallpaper is- Isn’t it a group picture of you and Hyukjae and your best friend- so why would you-” Changmin’s just going on and on in little fits and starts, in another one of his sputtering jags.

Yunho thinks maybe he’s broken the other man.

Teasing Changmin is turning out to be one of his favourite past times.  

“I’m changing my phone's wallpaper to your face right after this call. I think I'll use a still frame from Sing! Idol. Maybe Semi-final Rocker Chef Bambi," he tells Changmin. Changmin just makes a noise not unlike a deflating balloon, to Yunho's delight.

Yes, Changmin is a bit of a goner for Yunho's mother. Yunho's father, however, is another story all together. Yunho wants to keep them apart for as long as he can. 

Maybe he can have his mother to come up to Seoul, whenever she wants to see Changmin. Anything to keep Changmin from fleeing for the hills, which Yunho knows is a highly plausible likelihood, if he gets a glimpse how things are between Yunho and his father. Particularly given how Changmin has a good relationship with his own father.  

Tactful even through his embarrassment, Changmin doesn’t ask him directly about his father. Although he does go, just a bit awkward, and hedging, “will you introduce me to them? Your family. Including your brother-in-law? Not right now. But. Whenever you’re comfortable, Yun. Or when they come up here. Or I can go down South with you. Whichever. I don’t mind. I really don’t. I want to.”

Yunho pulls in a breath, touched.

Then he says very softly, because his family issues really can eat Changmin’s family for breakfast and then some, “he’s not my brother-in-law yet. But of course I will. Don’t you dare run away from me, after that.”

“Never,” Changmin promises quietly. 

His voice raises in a bark after that, which fascinates Yunho because Changmin’s never spoken at him like that. He’s all business again, and he sounds like he’s pulled a little away from his mobile to shout, “no, Sehyeong, not the sous vide machine- do not let the pledges touch that- Yun, I’m so sorry, I need to go-”

“Go,” Yunho releases him, with a chuckle.

 

--

 

It’s finally about bloody time, Kyuhyun tells them, or rather Changmin alone, over the private chat he has with Changmin, over Kakao. 

And then because he’s an asshole that Yunho still doesn’t quite click with, even though Changmin seems to now see Kyuhyun as his best friend, he continues his response in a voice recording, all lazy: “Does this mean Yunho will finally stop looking at me every other time we talk as though I've murdered someone he loves, or stolen his boyfriend? You know I have no designs on topping you, Chef Bambi, no matter how much our shippers beg and weep.”

The voice recording, instead of being sent to Changmin alone, is released into the Sing! Idol group chat on KakaoTalk.

Well. That’s that, then.

The group chat promptly explodes. 

Wendy and Tiffany are ecstatic and ask too many well-meaning and odd as fuck -and frankly intrusive- questions, while Amber just moans, “dudes, stop it, you guys don’t know how traumatising it was, having to pretend for so long that I couldn’t see All That Sexual Tension when it was right there in front of me-”

Donghae just sends everyone a million Biker Semi-Final Yunho GIFs in mid-hip thrust, and long, long strings of hieuts. Then he does a quick yet incomprehensible Instagram Live, where he chortles and howls without once explaining to his viewers what he’s laughing about, before halting his livestreaming abruptly mid-cackle.

Too many people send the link of Donghae’s live streaming antics to him, but Yunho just ignores them.

Rather, he goes into the gallery folder of Sing! Idol Changmin GIFs he has in his mobile, and painstakingly selects a Forever Love Finale Changmin GIF to send back to Donghae in the group chat. 

Leaning over his shoulder, Changmin chokes, nearly falling over on his face. “Kyuhyun’s right, he actually said you would have a folder of GIFs and stickers of me, why do you even-”

“Why wouldn’t I? Your expressions speak very well. It means I don’t need to type much to get my point across,” Yunho asks him innocently, and bites back a smile when Changmin turns utterly crimson and refuses to talk to him for the next half an hour. 

A quiet congratulations, and a sedate smiley face is what they get from Kyungsoo. Yunho immediately responds to him with thanks man, miss you.

Taeyeon is waspish, when Changmin rings her, “I don’t want to know. I’m too busy to look at my phone. Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know any of this. Who you fuck is none of my business. Are you pregnant? You’re not pregnant, are you. There’s no impending tyke I have to buy a socially-appropriate present for, yeah? Unless you're the first male pregnancy in South Korea and a marvel of modern science- I don’t want to know.” 

Changmin gets a little sad at that. Yunho slips an arm around him, but Changmin’s still all creased eyebrows and woebegone gaze. 

So they go down to her usual pub a few nights later, when it's mid-week.

Biting back a laugh, Yunho tries to keep a straight face when Changmin makes his eyes all limpid and big and luminous and lumbers towards her, “hug?”

“No hugs,” warns Taeyeon, scowling furiously. 

Her glare is made even more intense than usual by the winged eyeliner and black slashing brows she’s got drawn on her face, for her performance tonight. “I don’t want to know what you two get up to. I don’t want to know anything at all. Did the bouncers let you two in for free? Where’s my boss? They need to charge you the cover fees. Today’s Wednesday, Ladies’ Night is only free for Ladies. You're dicks, both of you. So pay up hnnnghhh can’tbreathetootight-”

 

--

 

At work, Hyukjae and Taemin don’t tease him too much. 

It’s a relief, for Yunho. He’s distracted enough from work, with all the discussions with SM Entertainment about possible future partnerships, Changmin’s not-album, and the man himself.

The two of them don’t warrant enough interest and attention to properly feature in the tabloids, because actual celebrities and actual entertainers brew even more exciting scandals than them any other day. Changmin tells him sometimes that the reporters, and food critics that show up at Choidot ask during the tasting sessions, and slip in queries about them in between questions on his actual work, and his singing.

“I just smile at them and talk about molecular gastronomy,” Changmin’s grin is sly, a rare occurrence that Yunho gets to see these days. “And then they have to scrabble to take down notes on that, and they get stuck on the technical terms. Usually they forget to circle back to the gossip.”

Yunho doesn’t have that particular problem. Jieun, the academy’s receptionist, is a bit of a surprise and a Godsend about that. She’s turned out to be more than adept at dodging phone calls and emails asking for comments on Yunho's personal life from Yunho, or even Hyukjae and Taemin.

When those get really a bit too much, Yunho just rubs at his nose, and emails Hyukjae and Taemin his proposal of a pay raise for her. 

His students are another matter.

After the ninth time someone comes to him and talks about how and what they think Changmin is to him, and how their relationship should be, Yunho puts his foot down, and says very firmly to all and sundry in his various classes, “sorry, but please let’s refrain from talking about matters from my private life. I hope you all know that this does not and will not affect how I conduct my classes with you. In this space, we should all focus on improving our dance skills, I included.”

No one is overly traumatised by his stern tone. A few of them do shrink back a little, and gulp down a few reflexive swallows, mortified and chastened.

“Nice,” Taemin crows, slinging an arm around him, “I didn’t think you’ll scold them like that.”

“I didn’t scold them!” Yunho is slightly appalled. “I didn’t mean to scold. I just hope they respect my boundaries. Like I respect theirs. We're all adults here. We’re all entitled to our privacy.”

“Yes, yes, yes,” says Taemin, eyeing one of the university girls who takes his class for K-Pop Basics and also Yunho’s Advanced Urban Ballet, scurrying past right after a swift guilt-ridden peek at them. “We’re all entitled, no one is scolded, all adults in the room. Potato, schmotato, however you want to call it. You can’t say you don’t like that they’re behaving, for now.”

“I didn’t scold them, I don't mean to be scolding,” Yunho insists, concerned.

Taemin just pats him patronisingly on the arm, sniggering.

 

--

 

“Hello,” Changmin is seated next to Yunho, with their shoulders bumping against each other’s. 

Changmin’s lips are being pressed by their owner into a thin wide line. His eyes are very wide, and he looks like he doesn’t quite know what to do with his hands. They’re twisting together from where he’s got them placed in front of him, fingertips tapping against the grain of the wood. His back is very straight.

“Hello,” Hojoon returns, easily enough.

Yunho knows his best friend. That is his I Am An Adult And In Civilised Society™ smile. Yunho's seen him use it on business acquaintances, and mothers of his blind dates.

“Maybe the two of you can relax,” he coaxes. “Get to know each other. This is a casual gathering. Remember?”

It earns Yunho twin bemused looks from the both of them for all of two seconds. Then they go back to eyeing each other beadily across the cafe table.

“Well, yes, hello. Hi. I saw you at the Sing! Idol finale,” Changmin offers, after a too long silence that borders on being awkward. “Kind of. We weren’t introduced. I always thought Yun’s best friend is Hyukjae.” 

Yunho blinks. Before today, the only person he’s seen Changmin be vicious at is his own mother. Who gives as good as she’s got, and then some.

So even Bambi has claws, after all. 

“Really,” Hojoon returns, polite and courteous. “That’s nice. Yunho has never mentioned you to me before, until he rang last week to ask if I want to grab a cuppa. He didn't mention that we're meeting anyone else.”

“All right,” Yunho laughs, and lifts his hands, palms facing out. “Time out, gentlemen. Play nice now. Don’t make me regret introducing you two to each other.”

 

--

 

What Yunho comes to realise, in the following days and months, is that being part of an “us” doesn’t seem to be that much different from how him and Changmin were with each other, even before their conversation in Yunho’s office. 

It comes with another belated realisation that perhaps all his prior worries and fears were precisely that: worries and fears. 

Retrospection has a way of clearing things up. In hindsight, if only he had worked up the courage to speak to Changmin about those niggling thoughts he had, and still does have, to some extent.

Which were presumptuous, now that he’s thought about it properly. 

He tries. It’s the weekend, and he’s not teaching any classes.

Before Taemin had joined them, Hyukjae and he had kept the academy open on Sundays but attendance rate turned out low anyway, with just a handful of students willing to sacrifice their Sunday mornings and afternoons to come learn dance.

Now it works out better for all of them to just close it, just for the day. 

Choidot’s shut, too.

Changmin’s back in the restaurant however, to experiment on his upcoming mid-summer menu, and work out a coherent concept for the special they should be planning, before the weather turns cool. Or so he tells Yunho, while he’s busy by the stove and Yunho’s been instructed that his movement is only restricted to where Hyunseok usually stands to expedite orders during the dinner rush. 

Yunho’s not quite sure why he’s here. Perhaps it’s for moral support.

He’s not complaining. Between his work and Changmin’s work and Changmin’s not-album that he knows is still under discussion, he hasn’t seen Changmin for four days, even though they talk multiple times daily.

When he asks, Changmin just answers him distractedly with, “because you don’t eat, Yun. Hyukjae said you skipped lunch twice this week. Here, taste this.” 

Swallowing the query that he had at the tip of his tongue, Yunho leans over the steel of the counter, mouth obligingly open, and lets Changmin pop a little ball of something into his mouth. 

His fingers catch on Yunho’s tongue, and Yunho balks a little, because they’re not quite alone.

Then he blinks, distracted, and lets the flavours explode over his tongue. “Er, well! Tastes like barbecue during summer camp. With the big bonfire and surfing and everything.”

The other sous chef that Changmin introduced him to, Garam, just snorts, tapping her pen against her clipboard. “Me, me. It’s my turn, Chef.”

Changmin offers another tasting portion to her. She chews twice, and hums. 

Already she’s scribbling down notes onto her clipboard, while reading them out loud, rapidfire. “Taste is tart and round, summery, your boyfriend’s right, since it’s slider kebabs, maybe we should dial the portion up a little more, summer festivals are generous, after all, the sauce could use a bit more pineapple, why is he here watching us work, maybe we should go with a wood-fired grill instead of charcoal to tease out the smoky umami of the meat, what if he’s a corporate spy, sure, you two did the competition on the telly, but what if he’s playing a long con-”

“Don’t call him my boyfriend,” Changmin is quick to refute, but he’s pinkening in the face. There’s a pleased edge to his words.

“Why would I spy on you guys when my boyfriend is heading this restaurant,” Yunho defends himself, at the same time.

They pause at the sound of that, and smile at each other. 

Yunho likes how Changmin’s grinning at him with his eyes crinkled unevenly, and how his nose scrunches up slightly in the middle from the big big big smile adorning his face.

“Oh my God,” Garam looks between them, and shakes her head. She’s dressed in her street clothes, with an apron wrapped around her waist, like Changmin. “Didn’t Seonyeob remind you that you shouldn’t date during working hours?”

“It’s not working hours now,” Changmin raises an eyebrow, and flushes a brighter shade of pink. It's not the first time he's seen it, but Yunho still finds him cute whenever he does that. Not that he’s told Changmin, who will likely spontaneously combust. “It’s Sunday, the restaurant is closed, why are you here. And Yunho’s not a corporate spy! Don't be ridiculous. He’s too shit in the kitchen to be one. I’ve seen up close what he does to eggs.”

“Excuse you,” Yunho tells him, amicable. 

Garam throws her hands up, exasperated. “Chef. You literally asked me to come back to vet your shortlist before we present to Big Boss during the upcoming week! Wow, talk about bros before hoes, dude.”

There's a lull.

“Do you mean that I am a ho,” Yunho murmurs quietly enough to himself, trying not to laugh. 

But his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s sous chef don't seem to have heard him, and are happy to bicker amongst themselves.

“You just did,” Changmin is saying to her, calmly enough. His ears are very red. “Finish vetting, I mean. That was the last dish. We have your notes. I know what to improve. Your semi-working hours on Sunday are now over. Shoo.”

Wow,” Garam says again, but she’s laughing a little, and kicking Changmin in the shin.

Despite himself, Yunho reaches over, to brush a finger against the curve of his boyfriend’s very red ear.

Changmin makes a sound at his touch.

It’s not a polite sound.

“Okay!” Garam says, very clearly and very loudly. “Once again: Wow. I am shooing myself! Okay! But please. We work in this kitchen, our livelihood is this kitchen, we prepare food in this kitchen, what was it you used to say, Changmin? Oh right, it’s unhygienic and we’re busy, so for the love of God, good men, my good Chef, please don’t-” 

“Go away,” Changmin tells her, without looking away from Yunho.

When Garam leaves the kitchen, still loudly chattering, Changmin tells Yunho too, very pleasantly, “you need to go away too. She’s right. I work here. It’ll be unsanitary. Let me clean up in peace.”

“You’re the one who asked me to be here,” Yunho tells him laughingly, and heads to the front of the house to wait for Changmin to clean up.

His steps are dogged by his boyfriend’s shrill protestations, “yes, because you don’t eat! But you come in here! With that face! I can't clean up with that face looking at me!” 

 

--

 

He tries again, while they’re driving to Changmin’s place, just so that Yunho can bum yet another meal (dinner this time) off of his boyfriend, before he heads home to work on curriculum plans for the dance academy’s upcoming quarter.

Yunho’s at the wheel today, because they’re taking his Jeep.

Changmin’s content to be in the passenger seat, with his own taste notes spread out all over his lap. Aside from that, he’s also got what seems to be a spirited discussion with Kyungjae going on, on KakaoTalk.

“So,” Yunho says, “er, summer menu, all right? Midsummer? But it’s already summer now.”

Changmin doesn’t look up from his perusal of his own scribblings. “Don’t try to make conversation about it. I know you had no idea what you were eating, except that it was barbecued.”

“Ouch,” Yunho says, half-wincing and half-admiring. Because it’s still new enough, and fresh enough, and maybe he’s also a masochist, but he likes it when his shy sweet Changmin actually snaps at him.

He keeps his gaze on the road, and flicks on the turn signal for them to make an exit to the left up ahead, and makes sure his tone is teasing, “so why did you want me there, anyway? Even your sous chef looked startled when she walked in to see me.” 

Casting another glance at the rearview mirror for incoming traffic, he makes the turn, as Changmin mutters something, inaudible. 

“Didn’t catch that,” Yunho says, an eye on the road. They’re a street away from Changmin’s flat. 

“Okay- yeah I just- I get more easily inspired for menu updates when I- when I have beautiful things to look at. And this way at least you won’t forget to eat, on your day off.”

This time, Changmin’s words are low, but not enough that Yunho misses them. 

Yunho still needs to drive. So all he can do is cough a little, and dart a delighted glance to the side.

His boyfriend’s ears are, predictably, very pink. His dark hair is longer now, and curling slightly over said ears. His face is very determinedly downturned, and he’s too focused on scrolling vigorously through his phone. 

Betraying his embarrassment, Changmin's lips are pressed so hard together that they've almost disappeared into themselves.

“Oh,” Yunho says. Something soft and indescribable is bubbling up in him, uncorked at that sight.

He really does still need to drive. So Yunho sits on that feeling and doesn’t say anything else, until he’s pulled up beneath Changmin’s flat at Jayang-dong, and he’s shut the engine off.

Pulling in a deep inhale, Yunho rubs his palms over the knees of his trousers.

Changmin is looking at him inquiringly from where he’s already unbuckled his seatbelt.

He should do the same. But Yunho just remains in his seat, because he can't quite make himself move yet.

That self-same something is still soft, still indescribable, still bubbling. It prompts Yunho to look at him, and go in a rush, “you know I’m... not perfect, right?”

Changmin looks rather befuddled. “Er. Where’s this from?” 

“I really want us to work,” Yunho tells him, words frothing out of him, disjointed and honest and finally freed from being bottled inside him for months and months, “I really, really want us to work. Because I really want you, and you’re good for me, so I’m selfish. I really want us to work.”

Changmin’s look of befuddlement doesn’t go away.

Yunho sucks in another breath. Time to be brave, like how Changmin's been brave, for them.

He says on an exhale, “but sometimes, I’m terrified of disappointing you.”

“Yun,” Changmin says. His eyes are wide in confusion and his mouth is slightly open. “What are you saying?”

Yunho just stares at him.

He rarely feels vulnerable, or unsteady like this. Only Changmin.

Only Changmin can make him feel like this. 

Changmin’s also leaning across the gearshift controls. He’s not touching Yunho, though, just gazing at him with those big earnest eyes.

“You think I’m perfect,” Yunho says helplessly. “I’m not.”

But Changmin surprises him. That in itself shouldn’t be surprising anymore, that Changmin manages to keep on being surprising, and just bulldoze through all of Yunho’s worries and fears in that painfully honest -and at times just painful- raw way he’s got.

Just like that.

“Where’s all this from,” Changmin asks once more. He’s actually snickering a little. “You’re not. I know you’re not perfect. I literally just said you don’t eat. Perfect people eat.”

Yunho quietens.

He stares at Changmin. He can’t not.

“Yun. Hey. You’re not perfect,” Changmin repeats, with less laughter.

He’s looking at Yunho very directly in the eye, even though the tips of his ears are pink, and fuck but Yunho loves this man. “I don’t think you are perfect. Is this why you sometimes look like you want to say something but you don’t know how to say it? It makes you look a little constipated. Not that you’re not. Still handsome. But yeah.”

Double fuck. Yunho loves this man so much that it’s a nearly physical ache. “Constipated?”

“Constipated,” Changmin says again, very firmly. “I know I’m- socially awkward- and you know it’s hard for me to really talk things through but you’ve always- you’ve never- you’ve always been the best at helping me keep calm. But you’ve got flaws, Yun."

Yunho blinks.

"Don’t worry. I know,” Changmin's tone is so firm and sure.

“You know?” Yunho finds himself just repeating Changmin’s words, like a parrot.

His boyfriend is not the most self-assured person in the world. Not remotely close.

But here he is, close and earnest and sweetly reassuring Yunho of all the ways that he feels Yunho’s imperfect, and wow, the list is getting kind of long.

“-you’re shit in the kitchen, you do despicable things to ham, you don’t treat eggs with the proper respect they deserve, you keep too many things to yourself,” Changmin’s still ticking his points off on his hands. He’s clearly on a roll, and his rambling is pure Changmin. “You can be manipulative, although I don’t think you realise that, you called ragù 'bolognese', who even does that, that's like saying all Asians look alike, and you like to work things out in your head but just not talk things through with people even when it involves them, you don’t eat-”

“I do,” Yunho protests at that. “I do, when it’s. When it’s your food. When it’s you.”

“I know,” Changmin smiles at him then, sudden and lovely.

He's uncurling his fingers, and then blurted out in a rush at Yunho is: “That’s partly why I love you. You're not perfect. But you're perfect for me.”

They both go silent for a little bit, at that.

Yunho looks to the front through the windshield at the nondescript grey of the underground carpark at Changmin's complex, because where else can he look? What can he even say to that?

A beat passes. Two. He makes himself turn his gaze back again, at Changmin. At this man whom Yunho’s somehow lucky enough to find, and meet on television.

Or to be more specific; behind the telly. Of all the places in the world.

Yunho grips at the steering wheel. “...Love you too. I think I’m stupid for you, Shim Changmin."

“It’s okay,” Changmin says, head canted at an angle, towards him. “You’ve been making me stupid for you since last summer.”

His ears are once again red.

Yunho loves them. Yunho loves him. Yunho loves Changmin. 

Changmin, who's his boyfriend, after they've danced around each other metaphorically and literally, for what has been months and feels like years. 

Yunho is sitting here in his boyfriend’s car, and his heart is full, and the atmosphere in his boyfriend's car almost feels like it's worthy of at least three mobile cameras, and with one spinning about them on tracks.

Meanwhile, said boyfriend is still running his mouth. In his head, Yunho dials down the imagined number of non-existent cameras to two. 

Changmin’s all earnest and leaning close, “stupidity loves company, and ow? Maybe we can move? I know I’m kind of ruining the mood here, but. Can we have this conversation up in my flat, Yun?”

Yunho’s heart quivers, and settles a little. Maybe it’s less full, because Changmin's right; he's sort of ruining the mood. Maybe it should just be a camera. One.

Changmin’s clearly taken note of Yunho’s changing emotions from whatever he reads on Yunho's face. He looks somewhat panicked.

Still adorable, in his panic. 

Or maybe Yunho’s that far gone, and just plain dumb for this man.

Make that zero cameras. The degree of rosiness Changmin's ears and neck can get when he's not trying -albeit typically with less than stellar results- to suppress it in public, is a visual phenomenon that Yunho feels should remain private. 

Unknowing of the nonsense Yunho's waxing lyrical in the privacy of his head, Changmin edges closer yet.

He looks as though he's a bit unnerved by Yunho's silence, “not that I’m not- not that this is not great and awesome and brilliant- not that you’re not brilliant. But well er, I think the shape of your gearshift is kind of sort of maybe imprinted on my kidneys and that actually kind of hurts the longer I'm leaning like this...”

 

 

-- S01: SING IDOL END--

 

 

Chapter Text

 

i. development: work bitch

 

Changmin realises one day in late summer that his life seems to have developed more than it was last August. It’s something that sits at the back of his head. 

During service breaks on the scant quieter days, or on the rare occasions he’s not at work and Yunho’s off elsewhere busy with his own things, or when the increased amount of people that Changmin has in his life these days all miraculously leaves him alone, he lets himself think about it. 

Usually it’s with either a chilled bottle of beer or a glass of breathing red in his hand, and he’s back in the comfort of his own flat and with something funny and mindless on the telly.

The more things change, et cetra et cetra. 

It's been slightly over a year since Hyunseok had first set him on this crazy journey that somehow became a journey, despite his own initial numerous misgivings. 

The larger world has mostly left him alone, after the release of his compilation album with Amber, Kyuhyun and Yunho, courtesy of SM Entertainment. People still cheer when Changmin gets summoned to variety shows every few months, to sing a few songs.

He releases a single every now and then to decent sales, when Kyungjae and SM send song demos he likes his way.

It still feels a little strange to hear his own voice on the radio, or Melon, when his team wants to take the piss out of him. Garam's particularly fond of putting his studio recording of Rusty Nail on during dinner prep. Changmin finds himself having to shout over himself wailing against a chorus of guitars, which is always a pretty interesting experience. 

But. Changmin's adjusting. At least he doesn't flush crimson everytime he hears himself anymore, even if it feels vaguely like an out-of-body experience to hear his own voice on repeat when his mouth isn't open.

Here and there, he still gets well-wishers who pop into Choidot to giggle and ask for autographs after their meals, or reporters who try to interview him during work, but mostly people are well-behaved. They don’t request for him to sing on the spot now, which is progress.

To his surprise, they listen, when he explains that he likes singing, but cooking is his life, and his career. Manjae tells him there's a particularly  fanatical segment of his fandom -Changmin's still not used to the fact that he has fans and much less a fandom- who likes to wail daily about what a pity it is that Chef Bambi's not a full-time entertainer.

"No," Kyungjae says evenly, the first and only time Changmin asks him about it, after the man -and BoA by default- has appointed himself as Changmin's manager. "Rule number one of working in the entertainment industry, even if you only see this as a part-time job. Never read the comments. Now can we talk about JBTC's offer on letting you have your own cooking show? Am I rejecting them again? And I heard that Youngjin and Jaeni, Hyejin are preparing for Season Two of Sing! Idol. Are you sure you don’t want to be a judge?"

“What?” Changmin squawks. “No!” 

And that’s that.

Kyuhyun for one, seems to have embraced actually working in the entertainment industry full-time. 

The last time they gathered at Taeyeon's pub, which is fast becoming the home base for the Sing! Idol alumni, somehow Changmin's coerced into singing three songs ("Your fans are pissing me off," Taeyeon barks at him, curt. "Get on stage before I have to tell them you're just here to drink again.").

Changmin comes back to the booth that Taeyeon pretty much has gotten reserved for them, to Kyuhyun telling them about his variety show gig. He's been roped in to be one of the MC of a pretty well-known talk show, who's in need of someone quick-witted whilst being a bit of a law expert.

"As long," Henry points a fry at him, which Taemin steals, "as you remember you're supposed to be working on your ballad album with me and Jongkook. That needs to be your first priority."

"So you're not practising anymore?" Zhou Mi wants to know, inquisitive. "Do you even have time? Or are you going to be commentating on this from the perspective of an active attorney?"

"Commentating," Kyuhyun snorts into his glass of red, which has been left undrunk, to breathe. "Is that what you people call it in public relations? But no. I probably wouldn't be as active in taking on cases."

Next to them, Wendy belts, “work it hard, like it’s your profession, watch out now, ’cause here it comes” and giggles into her martini when Zhou Mi rolls his eyes at her.

Changmin reaches out whilst sitting down, and takes her martini away without a word.

“Hey!” Wendy protests weakly. Tiffany, sitting opposite her, jams a buffalo wing into her open mouth.

Ignoring the farce happening in front of him, Kyuhyun darts a look at Yunho, who's been pretty quiet next to Changmin all evening, and nursing a glass of Cola. "Nonsense. If you want to talk about lack of time, Chef Bambi's dancing king over there wins over me, hands down."

Yunho smiles at him.

Next to him, Changmin nudges close, so his elbow bumps up against Yunho's. 

Kyuhyun swirls his wine, "how do you two even find the time to date? Share with the class! Hyuk says you're still teaching, and I saw you twice in two different variety shows last week, on Sunday your fans snapped photos of you out with a bunch of blokes who aren’t Chef Shim, and didn't the new SM boy group tap on you to choreograph the first two waves of their singles? And you're doing that EP thing? No? BoA’s doing a song with you on that, right? Right?" 

Yunho just goes, mild, "you know my schedule disturbingly well, Kyuhyun." 

Kyuhyun stares at him unblinkingly. "That's not answering my question."

Yunho tilts his head. His voice is still mild. "You have a lot of questions." 

Beneath the table, Changmin reaches out. He catches Yunho's hand in his.

Yunho links their fingers together, and stares back at Kyuhyun until the other man blinks despite himself, eyes watering.

 

--

 

ii. change: 11월…그리고

 

SM Entertainment is, naturally, more interested in Yunho than they are in Changmin.

Changmin, Kyungjae tells Yunho sagely when they run into each other at the entertainment agency and Changmin’s not around, is a bit of a sure thing to the company. With how he’s still not quite interesting in front of the cameras, even with a more musically polished voice, and with how he’s head chef at Choidot now.

“Changmin’s interesting on television,” Yunho says loyally.

Kyungjae just drawls, “when you put a mic into his hand and a backing track on, maybe. But how about you? Any interest in becoming a judge for the second season of Sing! Idol?”

“There’s still so much I have to learn,” Yunho snorts, and laughs at him.

Beyond performing, SM Entertainment’s got plans for Yunho, if only he’ll allow them. 

“Thank you,” Yunho tells them, during contract negotiations. “I will join, although not without conditions. My academy and my dance are and will stay as first priority.”

In a different life, or perhaps if he had been accepted at their auditions nearly twenty years ago, he would have thrown everything he had and then some at cultivating a robust career as an artiste with the entertainment agency.  Somehow life’s helped him work out an update to his childhood ambition, a nice change that marries long-ago ambition with his current career and life.

Frankly, Yunho doesn’t know how he got to be this lucky. He likes what he has, now.

There’s the academy with Hyukjae and Taemin. And then there’s a significant uptick in idol groups -belonging to SM as well as other smaller agencies- requiring his professional choreographer services, as well as these tentative plans to ride on his Sing! Idol exposure and release music, on the side.

“Don’t worry,” he’s reassured, “to be blunt, we can’t market you as an idol too, or a pop star. Your target segment is a little bit more niche than that. But there’s high interest in you, both from the competition, and it seems like netizens have come across these dance practice videos you used to do? Teaching the steps of some of the choreography from selected pop hits? We can harness that, no problem!”

“Because I’m too old to be an idol?” Yunho ventures, and laughs when the executive looks hesitant about answering. “It’s fine, Vice President. I help train idols for a living, too. I understand what you mean. This way is preferable for me.”

And it is.

It means Yunho’s busy, and most days he sleeps at most five hours a day. 

But with Changmin in his life, at least the five hours is a block of time that sits solidly from late night till past dawn, and the better eating habits fostered during his Sing! Idol days are mostly maintained. He’s still left with enough time to see his boyfriend, and even hang out with his friends outside of the academy on most weekends. 

Changmin. His musings have routed back to his boyfriend. It’s been a bit of a busy stretch, and they keep missing each other on their mobiles.

The last time he spoke to Changmin was about forty eight hours ago, when Changmin had rang him to say he was going into some very serious chef cookoff thing whose rules Yunho still doesn’t quite grasp, but nevertheless made encouraging noises at.

Hyukjae raps on his door frame and peeks in, “Yunho, do you want to grab lunch, oh gross, that is your ‘I’m thinking about my Changminnie’ face, I’m out, bye.”

“Wow, bro.” Yunho calls after him laughingly. “Nice to see that’s how far our friendship extends! Nineteen years means nothing, right!”

“Nineteen years is nothing when I have to sit across that face of yours for lunch and it defeats the purpose of eating, because I will lose my appetite.” Hyukjae is merciless, and waves a hand behind, at him. He leaves without another backward glance.

Yunho lets out a little laugh at that. He pokes at his mobile again. No new messages, or calls.

He opens his inbox, and answers a couple of emails from SM about upcoming plans on his EP. Checks again that there is nothing in reply from Changmin, in the last five minutes. Responds in the affirmative to a text from Hojoon, asking to meet up.

Are you bringing your giant moose again, Hojoon is fast in texting back. Please don’t.

Yunho’s amused despite himself. Why are you calling him a moose! The public calls him Bambi. Don’t tell me you don’t know that. 

Moose is a kind of deer, Hojoon points out. A very territorial, twitchy kind of giant deer that gets aggressive when startled and likes to do the solitary shit and emo alone. Sounds about right.

“Emo,” Yunho says out loud, and shakes his head. He taps out his reply, speed somewhat slower than Hojoon’s rapid responses. Emo? Is that 2002 and we’re all smearing black eyeliner on and drawing pink lines on our wrists?

At our last group gathering, Yunho can practically read Hojoon’s eye roll from the wry words. Your moose sat in a corner by himself and only spoke to you. Jinyoung tried to say hello and he yelped at her. 

Yunho gives up on typing and presses the voice recording button, “Changmin is shy. Jinyoung’s not for the faint-hearted, and you know it.” 

Whatever, is Hojoon’s economical response, sent back at light speed. We don’t feed moose here.

Yunho snickers a little to himself at that, because it’s been a few times that they’ve met. But Changmin and Hojoon still clearly don’t quite know what to make of each other and that in itself is hilarious.

“I thought Hyukjae is your best friend,” Changmin once told him, looking comically betrayed. Yunho just sniggers at him, “are we allowed to only have one? Well, so is Garam yours, or Hyemi? Or is it not even Team Choidot. What about Kyuhyun? Or Wendy?”

Changmin. It’s been ten minutes. He lets himself swipe over to his Kakao chat with Changmin. 

There’s still nothing. 

He twiddles his thumbs for a little bit because he hasn’t got any afternoon classes to teach today, and rolls around in his office chair a couple of times. 

“Silly,” Yunho tells himself, and suppresses the urge to drive over to Choidot in Cheongdam-dong.

He’s a boyfriend and not a stalker. Changmin’s just busy working. The cookoff sounds very prestigious indeed, when he was telling Yunho the rules and Yunho was trying to wrap his head around the awards and the organisers and the participants, which feature a lot of French terms that Changmin had rattled off rapid-fire.

After the umpteenth time when Yunho says scoldingly to himself, “Changminnie is at work and so are you’, only for his brain to answer him with ‘yes, but usually he manages to text an essay and then some back to you even before you finish typing your second line’, Yunho just throws his head back, feet on his desk, and guffaws very loudly at himself.

He’s pining like some silly lovestruck child and he’s self-aware enough to find it amusing, because it’s only been two days.

Then he takes himself to his favourite practice room in the academy, to start choreographing a new piece SM has just commissioned him for last week, for one of their newer girl groups. 

Yunho’s in the zone. His tee is soaked and trainers squeaking on the floor, shorts rumpled around his dance leggings; when he looks away from evaluating the bend of his thighs in the middle of a dance move that ends in a high kick, and realises he’s not alone. 

He blinks the sweat away from his eyes and flicks his bangs back.

It’s not a student, nor Hyukjae and Taemin by the door. It’s not even Jieun, coming by to tell him she’s popping out for a break.

His muddled musings have manifested themselves somehow. It’s Changmin who’s leaning against the barre. His arms are crossed and he looks tired, although he’s got a soft look in his eyes.

“My thighs hurt from looking at you kick like that,” he says in lieu of a greeting.

“Changminnie!” Yunho perks up. He’s bouncing over to the barre, when his boyfriend adds on, voice soft and exhausted, “the past forty-eight hours have been hell. I’m never doing cookoff challenges again. There weren’t even so many cameras on Sing! Idol. They kept getting in my way to the sink. So I drove all the way over here for a hug. But now I’m being told I have to scold you.”

Yunho pauses mid-stride.

Sometimes Changmin likes to take the piss out of him. But the look on his face right now is not quite familiar. It’s exhaustion, and fondness, and something else. “What? Why?”

Changmin straightens. His arms are still crossed over his chest.

The unfamiliar look on his face is morphing into a scowl. “Imagine my shock when I walked in, to Jieun at the reception counter packing her things up, ready to call it a night, and she tells me you haven’t had lunch. It’s ten at night!”

“Is it ten at night,” Yunho repeats like a bit of an idiot, and looks at his wrist. It’s empty.

Right. He’d taken his watch off, and put his phone aside, before starting his choreography brainstorm.

He tries for a couple of steps nearer.

Changmin’s scowl is growing. “It is. Ten at night! Why does your practice room not have clocks?”

“Er,” Yunho says, and comes to a stop, a bit uncertainly. He’s about an arms’ length from Changmin. 

Changmin just takes the chance to step close instead, and he’s got his arms around Yunho and his face is plastered to the crook of Yunho’s neck. 

He hums a refrain against Yunho’s neck and it sounds familiar, “바보처럼 멈춰있어.”

Yunho realises with a start that it’s the first line to the chorus of November With Love, which he’s released as a digital single a month prior. And which, Yunho knows, because of a video Hyemi from Choidot sent him over Kakao, Changmin tends to sing absentmindedly, while he’s working on lunch service prep. 

There’s a warm lovely feeling spreading low in his stomach. Changmin feels nice in his arms. 

“Hello,” Yunho says now, to the top of Changmin’s head. “I’m sweaty.”

“Hello sweaty,” Changmin mumbles. “I’m Changmin. Let’s go eat.”

 

--

 

iii. teacher: wrecking ball

 

"All right," Yunho says, one day when they're both at Changmin's flat, because his pantry is still better stocked than Yunho's, which can only be described as 'bare'. "Hit me."

It's the weekend, and they're both supposed to be resting, but enough is enough. 

Something needs to be done. His boyfriend is hopeless and it's really up to Changmin to stage an intervention. There’s no one else in Yunho’s life that’s better suited for this task.

Changmin frowns at him. "No hitting! There should be no hitting. You need to be gentle. Show me again."

"Right," Yunho says, and swings his fork with too much enthusiasm.

It smacks into the egg he's got in his grasp. 

Shell bits and yolk splatter over the sink. The result is something out of a Jackson Pollock painting, but in monochromatic yellow and beige eggshell.

"You're supposed to be gentle," Changmin tries not to sound too despondent. "Show me again, with just your hands this time. It's fine! Both hands, use both hands."

Yunho taps a new egg against the empty bowl Changmin's got for him, next to the sink. 

He's too gentle. The egg just sits quietly in his grasp.

"No, no," Changmin leans in, intent. "You're being too gentle now. Harder."

Yunho taps it again. The egg makes a soft but audible thud.

"You need to hit it like this, at an angle," Changmin grabs another egg from the carton and does so one-handed. He lets the yolk and egg white slip into the bowl, and lectures, "it needs to be a sharp crack. See. Like this."

"They don't behave like that in my hands," Yunho offers, and aims for the side of the bowl, where Changmin had cracked his egg.

Changmin thinks his boyfriend doesn’t quite realise it, but Yunho’s singing under his breath, fingers tight around the egg. “I came in like a wrecking ball.” 

“Don’t,” Changmin lunges, but he’s too far away and Yunho’s already pulling his arm back in a swing. “Yun, don’t sing that, don’t even think that, be gentle-

“I never hit so hard in love-” Yunho uses too much strength this time too. The egg in question smashes against the side, a sticky mess of shell bits and split yolk. "Oops."

"Oh," Changmin says. He looks at the carton, where only one forlorn egg is left, amidst an empty pallet of originally thirty. "I… Oh."

"Sorry, Changminnie," Yunho says. 

He doesn't sound very sorry at all. In fact he sounds like he’s trying very hard not to laugh. "Maybe I'll just eat eggs when you cook them for me."

“What happened to saying you can feed me,” Changmin grumbles, but Yunho’s nudging him, and making threatening gestures towards the one sole egg. He’s making a comically evil face, with bared teeth and squinched eyes.

What even is this man. Changmin laughs despite himself. “I guess I just have to help protect poor innocent eggs from the likes of you.”

 

--

 

iv.dreams: share the world

 

Changmin’s being prodded awake from what had been a series of very pleasant dreams involving Yunho and his favourite anime and a very large bowl of naengmyeon he was soaking in.

“Don’t cancel my barbecue, Yunho says we need to set sail, come on let’s go baby, baby, oh we share the one dream,” he mumbles, turning his face into the pillow.

There’s soft laughter by his ear. Then there are fingers at his ribs and he’s being tickled.

“Oh fuck, I can’t eat on the ship what is it I am awake no please stop that tickles I can’t breathe,” Changmin gasps in between strangled yelps, half in shock and half in forced hilarity. 

He sits up in bed, breathing hard, and blinks at the sunshine filtering through the wooden sliding doors, and the windows. 

Right. He’s not in his flat. Where is he.

Next to him, Yunho goes, soft and amused, “where do we need to set sail to?”

“I don’t know, you said you’ll tell me after barbecue,” Changmin says automatically, brain evidently still asleep, and turns to look at his boyfriend. Who’s dressed, and kneeling on blue bed linens instead of grey, and right, right.

Right. It’s his turn to bunk over at Yunho’s flat this week.

“I was going to wish you a happy birthday,” Yunho tells him. “I’m not teaching today and your boss says you’re not allowed to head into Choidot and Kyungjae says he’ll leave you alone today without talking about that new R&B ballad of yours. Happy birthday, Changminnie.”

At that, Changmin blinks, and blinks again, and wakes up a little more, to focus on the clumsily wrapped box Yunho’s got in his hands. Then he looks back at Yunho who’s clearly not finished.

“But,” his boyfriend continues to muse, “now I want to know more about this dream of yours.”

Changmin chokes a little.

Yunho’s tilting his head, curious. “Do you dream of me regularly?” 

Changmin looks at him. Between his actual Real Yunho, who’s gone and brushed his hair back and actually put himself in a shirt and trousers, and Dream Yunho who had green hair and pierced ears and a charismatic glower with a very interesting scar over his eye, Changmin quails. 

In his own defence, he’s not quite awake yet. It’s already hard enough to wake up to an already dressed Yunho. Much less wake up to an already dressed Yunho, while talking to Dream Yunho who was sharpening one of his three katanas just barely seconds ago.

He can feel his own ears growing warm. 

After a long while, where he’s silent and just staring at his boyfriend, Yunho reaches out a hand to prod at Changmin’s knee through the duvet. “Changminnie?”

Changmin shakes his head mutely. Embarrassment is a slow-arriving runnel through him, but it’s arrived at last. 

“The ship?” Yunho prompts, and frowns. “Does dream me say you can’t eat on whatever ship this is? Dream me doesn’t sound very nice. You can eat whatever you want as long as you cook my share.”

Changmin looks at his chest, which is very properly covered up in a shirt, and blurts, “you’re wearing a shirt.”

“Because it’s your birthday, Changminnie, I can’t wish you happy birthday in pajamas,” Yunho points out, patient. Then comprehension dawns. 

His smile grows wicked, and in proportion to the apprehension that’s creeping in for Changmin. “So. Was I not wearing a shirt in your dream?”

 

--

 

v. vacation: i don’t love you 

 

“This,” Yunho says in satisfaction, and stretches on the deck chair, and turns his face to the breeze. It’s the faintest hint of salt on his tongue, “this! It’s a proper vacation.”

He’s greeted by the sight of his boyfriend looking down at him, mouth flattened into itself and clearly swallowing a recrimination or two or seven.

“Oh, Changminnie,” Yunho hails, and chortles. “You make my world spin.”

“That’s the East Sea,” Changmin retorts, but his ears are super pink. He’s trying too hard not to look pleased. Yunho’s onto him. “And also that bottle of soju you drank! On an empty stomach! That was supposed to be for dinner tonight.”

“No, it’s just you, asshole,” Yunho tells him, and watches in pleasure as Changmin’s face, upside-down in his vision, flushes crimson. He says, more quietly, not that there’s anyone else around them to hear him, “I only had a glass. It’s all you.”

“I don’t understand how you can just open your mouth and let these- things- come out, just like that,” Changmin is babbling. He’s got a bottle of sunscreen clutched in his hands.

“You’re incentive,” Yunho offers, because contrary to what he’s just said, he’s the asshole. Teasing Changmin is one of his favourite sports. He gets the bottle of sunscreen thrown at him for his efforts.

Yunho catches it hard against his chest, laughing. 

“Well,” Yunho continues, mock-contemplative, and hugs the sunscreen to himself. “We’re on a ship now.”

“-It’s only a yacht,” Changmin is bent over and digging around in their bags for something. “And Hyunseok only loaned it to us for the weekend-”

“Hush,” Yunho talks louder. Beneath them, the yacht bucks lightly in the gentle swell. “We’re on a ship now, so maybe we can continue that conversation last week-”

He sees when Changmin finally gets what Yunho’s trying to drive at with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, because he trips on nothing and nearly faceplants into the bags.

“So what was I wearing in your dream,” Yunho asks, twirling the bottle. “You never did tell me. Come on, we’re already on a ship, and you packed the materials for a barbecue. We can try for a reenactment? Share the one dream, and all.” 

Changmin just looks at him, with narrowed eyes, and finally pulls out his tablet from Yunho’s duffel bag. His ears have gone past pink and are now visibly red.

He taps into the Melon app without saying anything, and shoves the tablet at Yunho. Then he turns to walk below deck, where the galley and the bedroom are.

“There’s service out here at sea?” Yunho wonders, and turns his attention to the screen, which is showing a couple staring at each other on screen, while a girl sings in the background, “널사랑하지않아, 다른이유는없어.”

“I don’t love you- there’s no other reason-” Yunho repeats mindlessly, and then it hits him, and he chokes, trying and failing not to laugh.

But his boyfriend is really fun to tease, so Yunho calls after him, “I’m pretty sure you were singing One Piece in that dream, and not Urban Zakapa!”

A loud indignant squawk and the thud of things -maybe a pan or two- dropping on the floor answer him.

Yunho just cackles to himself a little more, and heaves himself up to head down to, to better tease Changmin. That’s always more fun at close proximity. 

 

--

 

vi. defeat: i will show you

 

He keeps his smile patient, and lets her look. 

“Colour me shocked,” Hyemi says, staring at him. “But I never thought Chef would end up with someone who can’t cook.”

“I’m sorry?” Yunho offers, and tries not to let his voice tremble with the amusement he feels. 

She just stares at him more. Yunho tries his best not to feel like an insect pinned under a microscope. It gets harder, when Manjae comes by to join her, and they both make a sport out of it. 

Hyemi speaks then, but it’s not to Yunho. Her words are very clearly meant for Manjae, “maybe we can help teach him? It just doesn’t seem, well, proper. At least we can help make sure he knows his way around a kitchen?”

Yunho says, very honestly, “Changmin has tried. He really has. But I think he’s given up on teaching me how to cook.”

“Can’t be,” Manjae ponders. “Chef’s not the kind of person to give up on things just like that. He usually just gets tunnel vision and goes into a corner by himself and practices with trembling hands until he’s got it.”

“Er,” Yunho hedges. “I think we’ve tried that, and been past that, too.”

They’re at the private opening ceremony of Jinwoo’s new restaurant, and Changmin’s off somewhere with Hyunseok and the aforementioned restaurant owner. Yunho doesn’t mind. It’s mostly just Team Choidot in attendance anyway, and he knows all of them well enough.

Jinwoo’s new place is an American steakhouse, with an open-concept grill running along the bar. Yunho allows himself to be dragged by the two of them to the bar area, because these are Changmin’s people, and he’s not quite sure how to tell them no when they're being an insistent bunch.

“You can do it,” they keep saying to him. Maybe they’re trying to brainwash him into believing that, or they’re brainwashing themselves. Yunho doesn’t quite know. 

They say it enough times, a pair of cheerleading captains sandwiching him, until Yunho’s psyched up despite himself, and singing determinedly, “보여줄게, 완전히달라진나” whilst they go into Jinwoo’s new industrial fridge, to filch some ingredients. 

“We’re just borrowing,” Manjae reasons. “It’s only a very little, and for the greater good. Che- Jinwoo will understand.”

Fifteen minutes later, Yunho’s managed to burn butter in a saucepan.

Hyemi is still trying to keep a straight face, but even that proves too much for Manjae.

“What. How do you burn butter,” he’s muttering blankly, truly appalled, “how does he burn butter. It’s just butter. How do you do it. What. What. It’s only butter.”

“What is this,” comes from behind them, chilly. There’s an intake of breath from someone else.

Yunho scrapes a little at the brown bits that were butter in the saucepan, and tries to pretend he didn’t hear anything.

Hyemi stiffens, and sighs. “Hi, Chefs.”

Manjae’s still aghast and nattering to himself, “how does he burn butter?”

Changmin comes around the side of them, and takes the spatula away from Yunho. He’s sounding a little screechy, “what did you two do? Yunho, why did you even let them bring you near the kitchen?”

“They said they can teach me how to cook,” Yunho informs him, exaggeratedly forlorn.

Manjae goes, like a broken recorder, “he burnt butter.”

Hyemi just covers her face slowly, with a palm.

“Please. If I’ve already admitted defeat in this,” Changmin says, prim, “they don’t stand any chance. Why do you even let them do this?”

To Manjae, he only has an unsympathetic, “that’s nothing special. He did that to me, too. That’s why he’s not allowed in the kitchen.”

“I was blinded by their lies,” Yunho says, laying it on thick.

Behind them, Jinwoo is snickering into his champagne.

 

--

 

vii. challenge: more than words

 

“The weather,” Yunho’s father says, very loudly. His eyes are trained steadfastly upward at the sky. “Is lovely today.”

“Yes,” Yunho returns, polite. He bows. He’s been doing that a lot, ever since he had Changmin park, and both of them alight from the car. “Rather.”

Changmin looks up. Next to him, Yunho’s mother does, too. The sky is a uniform and dreary grey. It’s muggy, for autumn.

“Was there traffic coming down,” Yunho’s father continues, at a volume which other people might use to announce things. 

“It was manageable,” is Yunho’s courteous response. He’s facing his father, but there’s something odd about the direction he’s looking at. 

Changmin tries to track his boyfriend’s gaze, and looks towards Yunho’s father, and back at Yunho.

If he’s not wrong, Yunho’s staring very hard past his own father’s ear. 

“It didn’t rain?” Is the overly loud rejoinder. “I hope you didn’t speed. Is your car still working all right? Our usual servicing company-”

“There was no rain and my car was fine and we drove just fine and there were no queues at the tolls,” says Yunho. Changmin rarely hears him this testy. “As you can see, we are here and ahead of time and very clearly not in pieces, so my car is still fine and everything is fine.”

“Ah,” Changmin says, and comes forward, so he’s in front of Yunho.

He bows at Yunho’s father, who is in the process of opening his mouth, and shapes his mouth into an open-mouthed smile he had used over and over during Sing! Idol, “Mister Jung! Uncle. Hello! If you don’t mind me calling you Uncle? It is so good to meet you in person. Mother has spoken so often about you. Thank you for ringing me the other day. I am Changmin. I hope my presence is not too much of an imposition.”

“Changmin,” Yunho’s father says. Changmin must be doing something right, because the older man is smiling. “Yes, yes. Hello. Welcome.”

He’s got a hand outstretched, and he’s very firmly shaking Changmin’s hand. Changmin tries very hard not to wince at his strength, even as the older man goes, “I like some of the older songs you chose, on Sing! Idol. More Than Words! It's a good ballad. You played the guitar well enough.”

“Thank you,” Changmin manages. He makes sure to keep smiling, “I’m only a beginner, but I have had very good teachers.”

Yunho’s mother relaxes slightly then. “Darling, isn’t Changmin sweet? Just look at him. Changmin, dear, I hope your family isn’t too cross with me. I told Yunho I simply must see you for Chuseok. It’s been months!”

“Oh, no, we had Chuseok dinner with them together in advance yesterday,” Changmin tells her. “And we spent Chuseok with them last year, so it’s only fair, really. Hello, Mother.”

"Hello, dear," she comes closer to enfold him, and Yunho, into her embrace.

Changmin nudges his boyfriend, who seems to have been suddenly struck mute, and pries the slim wine bag from Yunho's clenching fingers. 

"A little something," Changmin says to Yunho's father, deferential, even as he hands the paper bag over to Yunho's mother. "From the both of us. It's a pretty good year, even if I do say so myself, and from my favourite vineyard in Tuscany."

Yunho's father hums in approval, as he glances over the label. "Tignanello! What an inspired choice. Sangiovese?"

"Yes," Changmin feels emboldened to say. He reaches back, to pat Yunho discreetly on the back. "It's not too fussy, or overpriced for the quality. Forthright. We thought you'd like that."

"Pairs well with red meats," Yunho’s father murmurs. He looks faintly pleased at being associated with something ‘not too fussy, or overpriced’ and ‘forthright’. “It’s nice that we’ve finally got someone in the family who appreciates good wine.” 

Standing beside Changmin, Yunho opens his mouth.

Changmin pats his back faster. Yunho closes it again.

Yunho’s mother takes over then, smooth and easy, and murmuring platitudes.

Changmin has still got his hand just below Yunho’s shoulders. The back of his boyfriend’s shirt is very hot and slightly damp to the touch. 

Perspiration, Changmin thinks, and makes appropriate agreeing noises to whatever Yunho’s mother is saying, whilst stroking a thumb soothingly down the raised line of the back-seam to Yunho’s shirt.

Yunho has even got a proper tie done up. Before today, Changmin's only ever seen him in skinny ties back when they were both competing in Sing! Idol. That feels so long ago now. 

He’s not wearing a skinny tie today, though. It’s a proper sort of tie; formal, shimmery grey silk looped into a very proper Windsor knot. They’d stopped at a rest station an hour outside of Gwangju to swap seats, so Changmin could take over driving, with Yunho giving directions.

Yunho had redone his tie then, so that the knot would be fresh and neat. 

Changmin thinks of how Yunho had felt comfortable enough to show up in a jumper and jeans at his parents’ place in Seoul last night, and smooths a hand over the warm, slightly sticky linen.

He can feel the shudder of Yunho’s breaths under his palm.

Walking close, so that their shoulders brush against each other’s, he pats Yunho again. 

Yunho leans in to whisper, “now it’s my turn to tell you: last chance for you to run from this insanity.”

Changmin turns to him, so that their noses are nearly touching, and says, hushed, “please. You withstood the madness that are my sisters and my mother. This is nothing.”

“My father makes your mother look like a sweet tabby cat,” Yunho’s smile is easy, but his words are not. He’s got his voice pitched low, still, almost hissing, “but I’m holding you to that. You can’t run away from me now.”

They exchange a look then, and Changmin does something he’d never thought he would do. 

He channels his mother, and lets his nostrils flare as he tilts his head back, and looks at Yunho down along the length of his nose, haughty and imperious.

Bring it on, he lets his expression say.

That makes Yunho laugh, at least. It’s a choked little snorfle of amusement tinged with surprise; and they both turn without another word to follow Yunho’s parents up the driveway, and into their house.

 

--

 

viii. beginnings: everyday

 

Seoul this winter is colder than usual.

Changmin doesn’t even like to go out much these days, except when it’s to work, because it’s freezing and maybe he’s getting older, but the chill extends all the way into his bones. Only Choidot’s kitchen, with their stoves and fires and constant exertion, stays truly toasty. 

“I’m happy,” he tells Yunho rather bemusedly, one freezing morning when they’re holed up in his flat. “And it’s not because of you.”

His boyfriend looks up from the dining table, chin cupped in his palm, from where he was fiddling with his laptop. “Should I be alarmed at that?”

Yunho doesn’t look very alarmed. If anything, his hair is in his eyes, and he’s smiling a little, even as he gazes at Changmin.

“Well, not entirely because of you, I mean. You’re part of it, but I don’t think it’s all because of you,” Changmin tries. 

Yunho tosses his head then. The mess that is his hair distracts Changmin, and he pauses where he’s kneading at the dough. “hey, and. Your father called me the other day, to tell me your mother saw you on television, and that you need a haircut.”

Yunho blinks very rapidly. “My father. Called you.”

“Oh,” Changmin waves a floury hand, and then sneezes at the white cloud he inadvertently flaps into his face. “I’m sure he was the one who saw you on telly, but he was just being shy.”

Yunho blinks more. He half-rises from where he was sat and indulging in having a blatant ogle at Changmin. “My father! Shy.”

“Trust me,” Changmin tells him firmly, and punches at the dough. “I know when someone is being shy. Anyway! Your hair. He rang.”

Yunho flicks an impatient hand at the aforementioned hair, which is brushing at the round collar of his jumper. “You know I’m under orders to grow it out. This thing about my father is more interesting. My father is not shy. He used to make defending witnesses cry on the stand.” 

Changmin just snorts, and refrains from telling Yunho that the precise words his father had uttered were, ‘get him to do something about it, Changmin, he looks homeless with that cut. I know you boys work in the entertainment industry sometimes, but that’s ridiculous. Please do something about it. He’ll listen to you.”

Yunho and his father. Well. 

Ever since the trip when Changmin accompanied him down to Gwangju for Chuseok a few months earlier, they've begun to make a very overt and awkward attempt to communicate.

But their attempts are usually stilting and stiff, where they both don’t talk about anything that’s really on their minds. 

During the trip alone, Changmin had already been subjected to three very loud conversations Yunho and his father have on the weather, coupled with helpless glances Yunho’s mother shoots at Changmin, from behind both their backs.

“Two stubborn Gwangju men,” Yunho’s mother tells Changmin despairingly later the first night they stayed over that weekend. “Be thankful you’re only faced with one specimen on a regular basis, darling. They’re all horrid when together.”

It’s a start, at least.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, Yunho’s father seems to like Changmin well enough. 

“You are a very filial son,” his boyfriend tells him when Changmin asks, as if that explains everything. “You’re polite to older people.” 

Changmin had resisted the urge to point out that he’s regularly rude to his own mother. That was when Yunho added, sardonic, “and you bought him wine. Good wine. He already loves you forever.”

Changmin didn’t know what to say to that. He still doesn’t. He only patted Yunho on the back again, in a show of silent support.

“Yes, but couldn’t the stylists have shaped it up a bit more?” Changmin says now. 

He’s playing devil’s advocate. He actually likes Yunho’s hair as it is, black and longish yet still not quite to his shoulders, and neat when tucked behind his ears. He’s rather fond of running his hands through it.

It’s a style that Changmin had, in his teenage years, secretly coveted whilst consuming scores and scores of Japanese anime and manga featuring male characters sketched with similar hairstyles. His own hair has never quite managed it, being too stubbornly wavy. Not that this is something he will ever admit to Yunho.

Yunho knows it, too. He raises an eyebrow at Changmin. “That’s not what you were saying when you were pulling on it this morning.”

Changmin flushes red. “Yun!”

“Oh,” Yunho crows, and comes nearer. “You’re blushing! I’ve still got it.”

“How can you really just say things like that- No one,” Changmin splutters, fingers squinching reflexively into the abused dough, “no one’s said you’ve lost it! Whatever ‘it’ is!” 

Yunho sidles over, and cocks a hip to lean against the kitchen counter. 

Changmin wrenches his attention back to the dough, and punches it again. He shivers despite himself. It’s warm in his flat, because he’s got the heaters all up and running.  But there’s a stroke against his left ear and, oh.

It’s Yunho’s hand, and he’s got the thinnest part of Changmin’s ear caught between his index finger and thumb. The calluses on his thumb catch at the edge of Changmin’s ear.

Yunho’s leaning close, “you just said you’re happy and it’s not because of me. It’s enough to make a man lose confidence.”

He doesn’t sound any less confident, though. The sly teasing tilt to the words, whispered directly against Changmin’s pinna, makes Changmin want to punch him, except that he doesn’t want to get flour all over his kitchen floor. 

Changmin settles for punching the dough again, instead. “That itches! I’m. I’m just saying. I wasn’t, I just wanted to tell you something dumb and then I saw your hair and I forgot!”

“Forget the hair. I don’t want to talk about my father now.” Yunho says.

His fingers are trickling down the helix of Changmin’s ear, and then his earlobe. The touch is soft, and tickling, and running to creep under the hood of his hoodie.

Changmin’s fingers spasm against the dough. He grapples for the rolling pin, before he ruins it any further. 

Vaguely, he thinks he’s making odd incoherent noises with his mouth.

He grips tighter at the pin, and looks at Yunho helplessly. Something in his face makes his boyfriend stop with the infernal stroking.

The horrid man is still laughing, and then he’s got his hand at Changmin’s elbow instead.

Now he’s pulling Changmin close, even while he’s still chuckling. “Sorry, Changminnie. Sorry! Don’t hit me, I love you. Love you, love you- everyday-” 

It’s enough to make a man weak. In the knees, Changmin thinks, while sucking hard on Yunho’s tongue. And then some. 

Changmin wrenches away some time later, and looks down in horror where his fingers are stabbed into overworked dough. It’s sagging into itself, and overworked. “You ruined my dough! This was meant for the Beef Wellington. The tenderloin is already rested!”

We ruined the dough. You helped,” Yunho corrects jauntily, and nudges against his mouth again.

Changmin lets him, and pulls away after giving his bottom lip a nip, “let me go! I need to get more cold butter. I have to make the puff pastry again. Don’t distract me-”

“It’ll keep,” Yunho cuts him off, unrepentant. His smile is sunshine incarnate. “You know I’ll eat anything you cook. The tenderloin is fine by itself. You don’t even have to re-do the pastry dough.”

“Go away, this thing is an insult to my professional integrity,” Changmin moans in despair, even as he curls his fingers tight into Yunho’s hair, the culprit to all of these in the first place. “Stop hanging around here and saying odd encouraging things like that because you look too good and you’re all sunshiney and lovely and this was what you did in Sing! Idol until I couldn’t ignore you but why can’t you just let me make my Beef Wellington in peace and oh oh I just said all of that out loud didn’t I.”

“You did,” Yunho is undeterred. 

He’s grinning at Changmin, fond. “It’s all right. Kiss me more, now.”

 

--

 

Chapter Text

aka. THE PROPER CARE & FEEDING OF BOYFRIENDS OR ANY OTHER FORM(S) OF PREFERENTIAL COMPANY

 


 

Carbonara à la Shim [Serves 21]

1 Grown men. Dial down on the amount of pasta if appetite is less voracious.

 

Ingredients list:

2 handfuls, or 1.5 lb of capellini pasta2

2 spaghetti, or capelli d’angelo can also be used. Up to individual preference.

2 eggs

1 wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano

Grated black peppercorns

Salt

½ lb guanciale3

3 you can try with back bacon, but it’ll be harder to taste the magic that is rendered pork fat.

 

Instruments

1 pan (at least 12 inch)

1 pair of clean kitchen tongs 

1 pallet of strawberries4

4 highly important for the fate of this dish!

 


 

How to make Pasta Carbonara in a single pan

 

  1. Grate the Parmigiano until it fills a 100ml measuring cup. Set aside. 
  2. Slice the guanciale into small inch-long strips and fry in the pan. Set well-fried golden guanciale aside. 
  3. Do not wash the pan, or scrub off all the deliciously rendered pork fat.
  4. Remove 1 ’berry from the pallet of strawberries. Shove it into the creeping hands of any peskily interfering company in the kitchen and remove the cooked guanciale from their immediate vicinity. 
  5. Add water to your pan to deglaze the delicious pork fat, until it’s half-an inch deep. Bring to boil and add a pinch of salt. 
  6. Whilst waiting for the water to boil, separate the eggs into individual yolks, and whites. 
  7. To the boiling water, at pasta. Cook until al dente, or when any company you have tastes a (1) strand and declares it springy.
  8. Shove another (1) strawberry from the pallet into your company’s mouth, before they can devour any more of the pasta.
  9. Remove pasta from the pan. Retain a cup of the guanciale flavoured pasta water, and drain the rest.
  10. Retrieve the guanciale from its safe place to pour back into the pan. Slap any wandering hands coming near. 
  11. Toss in cooked pasta and warm for a minute on low heat with the cooked guanciale. Add reserved pasta water.
  12. Head off any potential interference to the next extremely time sensitive step by offering the remaining strawberries in the pallet to any company you might have.
  13. Add egg whites, ¾ of the grated Parmigiano and 2 pinches of black pepper (ideally freshly ground) to the warm pan and toss continuously. Do this away from the heat, otherwise you will get scrambled eggs with your pasta and also an offer from your company to eat that anyway, because whatever you make is always best, Changminnie.
  14. Keep tossing. It’s all in the wrist.
  15. When the Parmigiano is well-melted and incorporated into the pasta together with the egg whites to give a creamy concoction, plate into 2 serving bowls.
  16. Try not to shudder in horror if your company asks about the possibility of adding dairy cream to the pasta.
  17. Make a nest in the centre of each (2) pasta serving, with a slight indentation in the middle.
  18. Drop the unbroken egg yolk delicately into the indent. Repeat for other serving.
  19. Take the pallet of strawberries away, before your company has had their appetite spoilt. 
  20. Season with more black pepper and remaining grated Parmigiano. Serve at once. 

 

Break the yolk and mix well with still-warm pasta. Eat. 

Allow a smoky yolk-flavoured kiss to be pressed to your cheek (although utmost concentration on the meal should, of course, still be demanded).




 

-- THE END.