This is the first time.
Jonghyun sits in the practice room, back flat against the mirror, wiping away streaks of steam from its surface. It's been a while since the others headed back - maybe a couple hours, maybe more. He stares at the panelling of the wall until he doesn't even see it anymore, just the idea of what's there.
Nayoung walks in sometime in between the limbo of time when Jonghyun starts to remember he should go back soon only to forget it all over again. She opens the door quietly and slips in behind it, her sneakers barely making a sound against the memory of Dongho's choked high note during their first evaluation, Jonghyun biting his tongue behind closed lips to keep everything in. Jonghyun doesn't look over but knows that Nayoung settles into the opposite corner, sinking against the mirror there, knees pressed to her chest, watching him.
Jonghyun gets a ticklish sense of déjà vu: it's like they've done this before, but so much and so little have happened at the same time that he's lost all sense of it, inundated under the fear that it's the end for NU'EST, sitting for months with nothing until they're sitting across from higher-ups with expressionless faces telling them this is what's going to happen, Dongho and Minki struggling to adjust, Jonghyun stuck between being selfish and being a leader to a group that's been run to the ground, maybe because of him. The Jonghyun of two years ago would probably remember every past exchange between them. The Jonghyun pressing the back of his head against the mirror now, looking up at the ceiling, arms still sticky from where the sweat dried on his skin, regrettably doesn't, like he regrettably does most things these days.
It's a sad juxtaposition. Her: successful, won a spot in a group guaranteed to be big, debuted again with Kyulkyung to become one of the biggest rookie groups of the year. Him: her sunbae, debuting to such momentum only to reach a stand still, unable to get his feet out of the mud. Maybe if he was still twenty and hungry for fighting for a piece of fame, he'd be bitter. But Jonghyun remembers the hazy outline of Nayoung's earnest eyes and her gentle voice shyly telling him I admire you, and he's so, so defeated and burnt out tonight - has been for longer than tonight - that he doesn't see the point in it.
Being a leader is a little like laying your body down between two cliffs and letting people cross over your back. If you're lucky, the last person will look over their shoulder and help pull you over. But you don't get to expect that. You expect digging into the earth with your fingernails and gritting your teeth as you pull yourself up alone. Maybe they wait for you. But you don't get to be sad if they don't.
Jonghyun's been feeling more and more like he's fallen into the crack in between, stomach up to his throat, still waiting to hit the ground. There's nothing to admire about self-sacrifice.
She, Nayoung, maybe gets about half of it. They're both shy around strangers, leaders of their respective groups, the same age, sitting on the floor of the practice room instead of sleeping, and the similarities end right about there. Jonghyun is caught between wondering if it's fair to want other people to feel exactly how he feels and knowing that he can't let himself be so selfish.
He'd let out a laugh when she came to him the first time. It was the sad and shriveled kind, not really directed at her. "What for?" Jonghyun had asked after she told him she looked up to him. That was around the time he and Dongho and Minhyun had to tiptoe around the building at odd hours in the morning just to practice, all the rooms reserved for Pristin's members otherwise. Nayoung had caught him in a small recording studio, sitting in the corner balled into himself. She hadn't joined him then, just stared, probably not quite awake, and started speaking.
It hadn't been easy leading I.O.I. Jonghyun didn't have to ask to know. It was different when the people were different, but Nayoung looked more relaxed staring him down at four in the morning than she did when she had promoted with the ten other girls on the old television set Jonghyun and Dongho had watched some of her and Kyulkyung's activities on back in the dorm. She opened her mouth, miming what she wanted to say, but had no words for.
Don't look up to me, Jonghyun thought, but didn't tell her. Nayoung took a seat on the conference chair in their drawn-out silence, shaking the monitor of the computer awake, and spent the next hour singing with a large pair of headphones dwarfing her small face, paying no heed to Jonghyun. He had only realized he fell asleep once she'd shut the door behind her.
Nayoung is not like Seungcheol, and Seungcheol's not like Jonghyun. Maybe that's why she keeps coming to him - Seventeen's soaring and Nayoung will never be the kind of leader Seungcheol is, and Jonghyun is a reminder that things can go wrong if you're too young and inexperienced to navigate the punches the idol life pulls.
It seems wrong to ask her about what it was like for her on the show. It isn't like Jonghyun really wants to know, either. That's how the industry works - no matter how much you prepare, how much you steel yourself for the impact, something catches you off-guard every time. Thinking about it makes Jonghyun feel defeated, carved-out from the inside, too tired to be truly upset, too old to get angry. It's like he's part of the whole person he used to be - the one who believed that they would get there if they worked hard, the one who told this to the rest of the boys until they stopped believing it and he stopped believing in it too.
He swallows. Nayoung is still looking at him. Turns his head to face her, a cheek pressed against the cold surface of the mirror, the eye closest to it seeing double. She's still looking at him.
Two Nayoungs, four eyes. "JR-sunbaenim," she starts, now that he's looking her way. One Nayoung. Im Nayoung who smiles when the stage lights shine brightly over her hair, who looks so at home in between her members, who has an entire career before her. He hopes her name stays in the headlines and Pristin’s name in lights, and that maybe they’ll occasionally sit down on opposite sides of one of these practice rooms, looking at each other but not, pretending that he’s someone worth her time.
Jonghyun hums in acknowledgement. When he blinks and sees her again, she’s watching him like she’s seen something she shouldn’t have. There’s a battle of something wavering on her face, stuck in indecision and indecisiveness, until she pulls herself to her feet as quietly as she came and walks over to him. Settles an arm’s length away.
There’s a pack of tissues in the hand she holds out to him. The ball of her nose looks red, and Jonghyun doesn’t realize he’s crying until Nayoung, arm sore from offering him the tissues, places them by his feet.
He doesn’t take one. Nayoung curls back into herself, staring at the spot in the panelling that Jonghyun had been watching for hours now.
This is not the first time they occupy the same space in silence, the quiet heavy with all the words they could say, but don’t. So here they sit, both shy around strangers, leaders of their respective groups, the same age though she feels so much younger, so much more hopeful, sitting on the floor of the practice room instead of sleeping, and the gap in between them seems so much larger than it physically is.
But it is the first time that Jonghyun lets go of his knees, placing his hands on the floor in between them. The first time that Nayoung looks from his face to that hand and uncurls herself too, letting her fingertips brush featherlight on the back of his hand before holding it gently in her own.
Jonghyun lets himself cry. Nayoung squeezes his hand - a one two reminder that this is not the end for you in her voice as soothing and transparent as the stillness that holds them.
This is the first time that Jonghyun hears the silence ring out, louder and more promising than a battle cry.