Hanbin isn’t saying it’s self-sabotage, because he doesn’t think he has it in him to do that to himself, but he can’t help the reflexive relief that sags the clench of his body when the scores flash and he realizes he's lost, like the universe telling him: it’s okay. It’s over. The odds hadn’t been in his favor from the start, and he’s well-enough acquainted with Mnet’s editing team to know that he had made too many easy mistakes in the beginning, had unknowingly written himself too good of a narrative arc to pass up.
Tablo and Masta Wu had known it too, each of them simply clasping his hand and pulling him in for a quick shoulder-bump before letting him go. Hanbin feels a bit sad at that—working solo with two of the people he respected most had been electrifying, and who knows when he’ll ever have the chance again? Queuing up his tracks and having Tablo or Masta Wu’s fingers start tapping almost immediately, their silent approval—admiration, even, if Hanbin will allow himself the indulgence—is what he knows he’d really been looking for.
“Maybe it’s for the best,” Tablo tells him. They’re back in the dressing room, the cameras clicked off. Hanbin had walked off the stage alone after the dramatic reveal, the camera slowly darkening on his retreating back. As if this was how things progressed in the real world. He’d gone back to the dressing room, kicked a chair in frustration, immediately righted it, then took what felt like his first breath in weeks. When Tablo, Masta Wu, and Woosung walked back in, he was slouched in a chair, chin to his chest, all the sulking he’d allow himself. “Since you have Mix & Match and the kids to focus on, too.”
Tablo understands the relief. He had disapproved of sajangnim sending Hanbin on the show in the first place. Hanbin, hurt that Tablo hadn’t mentioned Bobby, that he’d singled Hanbin out like he was some kid who couldn’t take care of himself, had taken it for contempt until Bobby laughed when he found out and said, shaking his head, ah, I always knew hyung liked you best, and Hanbin realized it was concern all along.
Woosung, who’d come in less experienced with the trick of network editing but a fast learner—though, it must be said, and Hanbin is sad about this for Woosung, who’s more than talented enough to deserve it, not fast enough to win him the competition—hauls him in for a brief, fierce hug. “Fuck ‘em,” he says when he pulls back, indignant, and Hanbin feels watery with gratefulness that Woosung is on his side. “That was a bullshit decision.” Then he claps a hand on Hanbin’s arm, hard enough to sting. “At least you went out in style.”
Still, that’s twice in a row now, and Hanbin can’t help but picture the tallies, two black X’s on his record. The stakes were different this time, of course. Losing still sucks, but last year it had felt like the end of everything he’d ever known, not just because it meant he couldn’t debut, but also because losing had made him feel like he couldn’t trust himself anymore. This time, it’s just a missed opportunity, not the end of the world. And he really had gone out in style.
Bobby’s in the car already when Hanbin opens the door. He’s got one earphone in as he looks out the window, eyes crossed in tiredness, but Hanbin can hear a tinny strain of music through the earphone in his lap, the slick snare of the beat pure Dok2. He glances over when Hanbin climbs into the seat next to him, his eyebrows drawn.
“I’m—,” he starts saying, and Hanbin didn’t realize how little he needed an apology until right now, when presented with the option.
“Don’t say it,” he warns, and leans his head on Bobby’s bony shoulder. “Or I’ll tickle you.” He half-heartedly jabs a finger in Bobby’s side.
Bobby hiccup-laughs, then slides down a little in his seat so Hanbin’s not straining his neck. “Okay, okay,” he says, and slips his hand into Hanbin’s. “You should’ve won, though. And I’m not just saying that.”
Hanbin turns his nose into Bobby’s neck, and there, in the small, dark space between the leather of the seat and Bobby’s soft skin, he lets himself be selfish. Yeah, he should’ve fucking won. But: “you win some, you lose some,” he says, and means it. “I’m okay with losing this one.”
Jinhwan is still up when the two of them get home that night.
“Hey,” Jinhwan says, glancing up at them from Junhwe’s bed. He’s got his understanding hyung face in place; Hanbin had uploaded a sad selca into their group LINE chat on the car ride home, which Bobby had chased with a stupid one of him trying to stick his tongue in Hanbin’s ear, Hanbin a blur of white as he scrambled to get away from him. “Sorry about today.”
“It’s okay,” Hanbin says, feeling like a broken record. “Really. Hey, budge over.” He drops his backpack and lets himself fall onto the bed, half on top of Jinhwan. He doesn’t need the apology, but he is grateful Jinhwan feels sorry enough for him that he doesn’t say anything about how much Hanbin probably smells like he needs a shower.
“Okay, then I’m not sorry about today,” Jinhwan says, rolling out from under Hanbin and throwing an arm around him for a quick hug. “I’m glad you’re not doing that show anymore. It was too much, even for you, Hanbin. You should’ve seen your face this past week.” He rolls his eyes back, sticks his tongue out. “Yunhyeong kept asking me if we should check for a pulse.”
“Hyung,” Bobby whisper-shouts, and belly-flops onto the both of them, wrapping his arms around both their necks. His breath is cold against Hanbin’s collarbone, though his hair is starting to reek. “Why are you here? Where’s Junhwe?”
Jinhwan laughs, patting the back of Bobby’s neck. Bobby all but purrs, nuzzling into Jinhwan. “Fell asleep watching a movie with Donghyuk, and I didn’t have the heart to wake him up. Besides, it’s been awhile since it’s been just the three of us. I feel like I haven’t seen you two in ages.”
Hanbin knows the feeling. He’s also pretty sure that Jinhwan turning up in their room probably involved a little more coercion than a boring movie, but he’s grateful for it. It’d been just the three of them for so long, before it’d been the three of them and Junhwe, then Yunhyeong and Donghyuk, and Chanwoo and Jinhyeong and Hongseok, too. It’s more fun with more people, but there is something indisputably familiar and comfortable about this, the three of them barely fitting on the narrow bed, Bobby’s newly grown boy body pressing down uncomfortably on Hanbin’s bladder. It reminds Hanbin that just because he can do things alone doesn’t mean he has to, that he is beyond lucky to have found not just one but two people who he would trust blindfolded, hands tied and behind his back, kneecaps busted.
As if he knows what he’s thinking, Jinhwan reaches over Bobby’s head to card his fingers through Hanbin’s hair. “It’s good to have you back,” Jinhwan says. “I can’t deal with the kids by myself.”
Bobby butts his head up against Jinhwan’s wrist. “Hey, what about me?” he whines.
Hanbin laughs, rolling over so Bobby’s trapped between him and Jinhwan. “You’re one of the kids, hyung. Anyway, now that I’m out, you have it easy. You’d better win.”
So, in retrospect, maybe Hanbin had asked for it.
Because pretty soon Bobby starts winning, and winning big—first amongst the other mentors and competitors, who actually start considering him competition, and then public favor, even the ones who’d spent his entire run so far calling him idol trash, overrated and overhyped. He starts popping up online everywhere, articles about him start getting thousands of upvotes (and sometimes thousands of downvotes), the list of artists who come knocking on YG’s door for a Bobby feature starts looking like Hanbin’s most recently played playlist, and he gets featured in fucking GQ. Even Hanbin’s dad knows what GQ is.
On the one hand, it’s not surprising. Bobby’s a performer made for the stage, with the kind of personality that’s made to be loved. His mom in America, the passion that ignites in him, that voice of his—those are just nice extras, the free gifts you didn’t know you were going to get when you finally splurged on the shoes you’d been waiting to drop all season. Hanbin’s known it since the first time he heard Bobby rap, which also happened to be the first time he’d ever met him.
Even at fifteen, Hanbin had been sure of his own abilities. More importantly, sajangnim had been as well, and that had given him a certain gravitas among the new trainees, most of whom entered with the yo-yo confidence of teenagers—sometimes inflated because here they were, at YG, just getting in was enough to inspire confidence in anyone, and then sometimes flirting with rock bottom, because here they were, at YG, everyone else good enough that a hair’s difference in talent or potential was what separated debuting and leaving.
And then: enter Bobby, some skinny, mop-haired, bucktoothed kid from America with a goofy smile and the solid belief that he was going to debut. In his mind, there was no question he wasn’t, because this was it. YG wasn’t just an option for Bobby and the home he left behind in Virginia; it was the option. He’d bought the ticket across an ocean, twelve timezones, and who knows how many years of training with nothing but the credit of his potential. Hanbin had been amazed the first time he heard Bobby rap, the force of that voice ripping out of Bobby’s lanky body and uncool clothes. He’d been even more surprised, afterwards, when he asked Bobby who his favorite rapper was, did he prefer east or west coast rap, what his favorite song off the new Kendrick Lamar album was, and Bobby just looked right back at him, tilted his head, and asked, who?
Bobby was always meant for big things. Hanbin has always known—just as he’s always been sure of his own ability—that Bobby would be on TV, in magazines, on stages as big as his ambition. He’d just never thought that it might happen like this, without him. That Bobby would hear you’d better win and do so, the same way some people hear go west and set out to conquer the entirety of an unknown landscape. It makes Hanbin question himself, wonder if maybe it hadn’t been a little bit self-sabotage after all, if maybe things now would be different if it had been him.
(And when he thinks about it—yeah, of course it’d be different. There wouldn’t be the long list of artists leaving their calling cards, probably not the newly sprouted devoted online following, certainly not the GQ cover. Hanbin has always kept inventory of his own ability, and he knows that those qualities that make him a great leader for iKON are exactly those that would have precluded his ability to be the phenomenon Bobby is right now.
Hanbin isn’t stupid. He knows he has Yang-sajangnim’s favor, which means more than a lot of things. But Bobby has Dok2’s, The Quiett’s, Swings’, that of countless high school boys. And their world, his and Hanbin’s, is ever-expanding. It’s not just the blink of a camera and a tape they’ll send to the top floor of the YG building anymore. Now it’s the internet, it’s journalists, it’s the mercurial whimsy of teenagers. And Hanbin isn’t stupid. Held up against each other, he knows which one weighs more.)
“I’m not jealous,” Hanbin says quickly, even before Woosung says anything.
Woosung snorts. “Okay. I wasn’t going to say anything, but now that you mention it…”
“Oh, fuck off,” Hanbin says, leaning back in his chair. He’s alone in the studio tonight, doing some mixing for the tracks they laid earlier that day. He’d spent more time than was probably necessary fine-tuning Bobby’s, smarting a little because he was stuck in the studio doing the same old while Bobby was performing at the GQ release party. Somehow, he found himself picking up his phone; somehow, he found his thumb hovering over Woosung’s name; somehow, he found himself hitting ‘call,’ half-hoping Woosung was too busy, half-hoping he’d pick up.
He’d picked up. Hanbin had fumbled his way through some formalities and stilted explanations for his call, played a half-finished track for him on speaker, wondering the whole time if it was as awkward for Woosung as it was for him, but Woosung took it in stride once he confirmed it wasn’t a prank call, and even asked Hanbin with his characteristic aggressiveness why it’d taken him so long to call him, did he even read the LINE messages Woosung sent him? (Yes, but Hanbin didn’t really think an inexplicable photo of Woosung’s butt in green pants needed a response.)
“Look,” Woosung is saying, “I’m, like, really happy you trust me enough to call me with your relationship problems—”
“They’re not relationship problems,” Hanbin interjects, now sincerely wishing he hadn’t called.
“—it’s pretty cool to know YG trainees are just like us and not, you know, manufactured robots but Hanbin, I’m not going to sit here and tell you you’re better than Bobby to prop up your ego—”
“I’m not asking you to—I don’t think I’m better than—” Hanbin says, stunned.
“—even though you are—”
“Really?” Hanbin asks, shamefully pleased.
“—but, my point is, it’s okay to be jealous. Or, I mean, sorry, you’re not jealous, but if you were. It’s okay.”
“Really?” Hanbin asks, in a smaller voice this time.
“Really—for fuck’s sake, have you never had real friends before?” Woosung asks impatiently. And then, “Wait, no, actually, don’t answer that, it’ll just depress me. Yes, Hanbin. Why do you think I was such an asshole to you and Bobby when we first met?”
“Wait, are you trying to say you think you’ve stopped being an asshole, because if so, I have some news for you—”
“My point is,” Woosung says, rudely talking over Hanbin’s words, just like the asshole he still is, “my point is, I was an asshole because I was fucking jealous. I mean, shit, Hanbin. Do you even know how many freestyle concerts I’ve won? Do you know how many rented studios I’ve been kicked out of for overstaying my time? Do you know how much hustling I’ve had to do just so I could get some producer who probably makes his beats on his laptop at home to let a random seventeen-year-old kid rap over his tracks? And then there was you and Bobby with your new shoes and fucking stupid habit of not taking the tags off your damn clothes and probably Teddy and Tablo on speed-dial just walking around on stage looking nervous as if the stakes for you were anything like the stakes for me. The only screen time I was gonna get was by being an asshole about you. I mean, shit, Hanbin, aren’t you going to Hong Kong for MAMA? You’re YG, man. I’m still fucking jealous.”
“Um,” Hanbin says, a little stunned. “Okay, yes, we are going to Hong Kong. But I don’t have Teddy-hyung or Tablo-hyung on speed-dial. I don’t even have Teddy-hyung’s phone number. Also, you’re way good. Wu-hyung thinks so, he’d totally send you a track.”
Woosung laughs. “That’s not the point—wait, did Wu-hyung really say that? Fuck yeah, I’m awesome—my point is, yeah, I’m jealous. You’re good, and lucky, and I’m not even that mad anymore that just because you’re YG you could make an album of yourself farting and still sell more copies than I ever will, but being jealous doesn’t matter when I know I’m awesome. You know? Like, sure, you could produce circles around me, but I’m still a better rapper. So, jealous of Bobby, not jealous of Bobby, whatever. But I’m just saying, if you were, it’s okay. You’ll catch up.”
Hanbin sits up, ready to protest, but—Woosung’s right. He is the stronger rapper, but Hanbin could produce soccer pitches around him, thank you very much. “Okay,” is what he finally says. “I get it. Look, I have to go, it’s getting late and I need to finish this track, but—thanks.”
“Hell yeah,” Woosung says, “you’re welcome. Bring me back something awesome from Hong Kong.” And then, almost indistinctly, “fuck, I’m good.” Then he hangs up.
Hanbin stares at his phone for a second. JUNG WOOSUNG 21:54, it flashes back at him. He opens LINE.
The response comes almost immediately:
Everyone’s still up when he gets home. Junhwe and Donghyuk are playing video games against each other, and Yunhyeong is providing peanut gallery commentary, rooting Donghyuk on if only because watching Junhwe grow more and more irate is entertainment in itself. Jinhwan’s on his stomach on the couch, swiping idly through his phone. Hanbin waves a quick hello at them before ducking into his room.
“Hi,” Bobby says. He’s in Hanbin’s bed, face down, and Hanbin stops just short of shrieking.
“What the—aren’t you supposed to be at the GQ release? Also, is that my pillow you’re rubbing your head on?”
Bobby stops rubbing his head on what is most definitely Hanbin’s pillow, then turns his head. “I left after my performance,” he says, voice scratchy and reaching critical whine tipping point. “Hanbin, I’m tired. I’m so tired. I just want to sleep for a million years and I miss you guys. I want to kick Junhwe’s ass at video games too.”
Hanbin makes his way over to his bed, gingerly sitting down to avoid crushing Bobby’s head or fingers. Bobby immediately cuddles closer until he can rest his head in Hanbin’s lap. Hanbin looks down at the curl of Bobby’s gel-stiff hair against the pink rim of his ear and feels suddenly, abruptly tender, whatever lingering feelings of jealousy subsumed by the warm weight of Bobby’s head against his thigh and Woosung’s words echoing in his head: it’s okay. You’ll catch up.
“Yeah,” Hanbin says, running his knuckles gently against Bobby’s scalp, watching in wonder as the tense line of Bobby’s body visibly relaxes. Despite Bobby’s free and easy way with love, he keeps as tight a fist on any public displays of weakness as Hanbin does. Hanbin complains about Bobby being as much a handful as the other kids, but there are depths to his maturity that have nothing to do with age, or energy. After all, Bobby’s spent an entire adolescence countries away from home, learning to assure his mother through a grainy Skype filter that he’s doing well, of course he’s doing well, there’s nothing else he could be doing. Hanbin realizes with sudden clarity that just as being with Bobby and Jinhwan taught him how to depend on someone else, so did it Bobby. They’ve grown up together, shared between them the foundational years of hardship that all future success and failure, both shared and individual, will be built on.
No matter how fast or far Bobby goes, Hanbin will get there too. If Bobby is singing, Hanbin will be too. And in the meantime, this is something he can do for both of them. “Junhwe’s ass will always be there for the kicking. Keep working hard, Kim Bobby. We miss you too.”