“Do you guys really want to debut?”
The question was thrown into the darkness of the dorm room out of nowhere by Song Yuvin, who sits relaxed on the floor, with his back leaning against the cupboards and fingers absentmindedly strumming a random guitar he found.
It is 5 am in the morning and the first month of the competition has gone by in a breeze. Group Battle Evaluation has just ended, and some of the older members were the last ones to return to the dorms, including Yuvin himself. It’s funny how despite their sore muscles and strained throat, they chose to make a detour to the practice rooms, to run through old, personal choreographies in attempts to feel a little bit more like home inside this building that suffocates them so, day by day.
Coincidentally, there is exactly one room empty by the time they returned (the kids probably decided to go have sleepover in some other rooms before break, so naive and youthful), and after washing off their make-up and hair separately in their respective rooms, Yuvin and Kookheon somehow bumped into Wooseok and Seungyoun on the way back to that one empty room, most likely to also find some peace away from the overly excited hormonal teenagers that are their neighbors, and then later Wooseok left, announcing he would come back with Jinhyuk, and then somehow returning with two more people, Seungwoo and Byungchan, who apparently decided to come with.
All in all, they all seemed pretty happy with one another's company when Yuvin closed the door and sunk onto the floor in exhaustion.
(After all, they can only soak up the adoration of naive kids who look up to them as idols only for so long, until they decide, enough, can't they see that they're here because they're a bunch of sad wannabes just like everyone else in this program?).
And now here they are, gathered in silence, scattered around the room to find comfort from who they feel the most at home with.
Inside this room, they drop the pretense of the eager, hardworking, and desperate trainees, unveiling entirely different personas that are simply desperate, period.
There is a sound of someone stirring, and then a deep exhale.
“Not like this.”
Seungwoo is the first to respond, after a deafening silence.
The others turn to him, or try to, in the dark. He is laying in bed with both arms wrapped around Byungchan, who is resting his head comfortably on his leader’s shoulder. Byungchan throws him a rueful half-smile, because it is an unfortunate truth.
His leader has said once upon a time that he loathes the idea of participating in a survival program for fame, and Byungchan, of all people, knows it to be true.
Except Byungchan whispered to him in a middle of the night a while back in Victon’s dorm after their company first offered, whispered that he wanted this, wanted to bring fame for his hyungs, and Seungwoo signed the forms a week later because Byungchan is right, the dreaded three months would not be for him. It is for his members that think of him as a leader and relies on him with those hopeful, but tired eyes.
(He couldn't live with the idea that he has had failed them, and would continue to fail them if he doesn't trade his pride fast).
Seungyoun turns away and stares up into the ceiling from the top bunk on the other bed. He exhales too, but no stress seems to release from the joints of his muscle or the nervous beating of his heart. “I do,” he admits, with a hint of defiance that can be heard, perhaps to mask a sliver of guilt. For what, they can only guess.
Those who has seen the maknae Seungyoun jump around backstage in music shows with his three Chinese brothers with clumsy Korean and one very, very handsome Korean man with gentle eyes that used to look at him with indescribable fondness will know that Seungyoun has lost so much to a political tension that is bigger than the entire industry.
Seungyoun grins in his pretense, nonchalant way, all boyish and strong. “They’re all working hard across the sea. I have to work hard on my end too. Maybe one day, when the tension blows over, we’ll all get to be together again.”
Their memories take them back to Seungyoun’s sudden excitement when Yizue from Hongyi timidly approached him during X1-MA practice and mentioned the name of his member who Yizue met briefly during the previous survival competition he was a part of, in China. It reminds them—Wooseok, especially—of how the rapper seemed to immediately soak in a new-found energy and started radiating genuine happiness. It was the scene that made the cut on the second episode, what made him suddenly started gaining more attention from the national producers.
World peace is never something any aspiring idols worry about, but situations like this would make anyone take a split second to pause and think. For what it is worth, they can only wish along with Seungyoun that it will happen, one day.
Silence falls over them, once again.
“Isn’t the main point we became idol is to be in that spotlight?” Jinhyuk wonders aloud.
He is sitting at the bottom bunk below Seungwoo’s, shoulder to shoulder with Wooseok who is resting against him. There is a frown in his brows, like as though he is trying to justify why it is okay for the two of them to be there, leaving 8 members back in that crappy, old dorm.
“We ended up in this industry because we love what we do and the attention we get. Hell, we’re actually going to the extent of selling the entirety of our soul on camera right now, for that one chance at making it big. What kind of hypocritical bastard would I be to say no, Yuvin-ah?”
Yuvin glances up from the strings of the guitar, eyes meeting Jinhyuk’s. He knows the same desperation is there, glaring like a calm waterfall in his own eyes.
“What kind of bastard indeed, to be so ungrateful that you would leave the fans you already have, because as much as you say you love them, they’re not enough,” Kookheon murmurs, eyes on his clenched hands.
There is no hostility in his voice, only brutal honesty. The snide remark is not really directed at anybody. It is nothing but fact—the sky is blue, the grass is green, and Produce is an instant way for immeasurable fame. When the opportunity of a second chance is presented to them, it is hard to speak of dignity and honor when they can almost taste the prize for real this time.
(Plus, they tried the honest work thing, look where that got them).
“If I have to be a bastard, then so be it,” Wooseok laughs, and it sounds so hollow, like he has been dying inside. “I already have a streak to my name, what’s another one?”
Jinhyuk hisses at him.
“I can’t see those—fans the same way, after what happened with Somi.” Wooseok tells Yuvin, who did not manage to hide the curiosity on his face.
Yuvin cocks his head, frowning. “But they’re just rumors—?”
Wooseok snorts, eyes glimmering coldly. “Of course they are. But look at what rumors are doing to Subin. Look where he is now.”
Yuvin sucks in a sharp breath and swallows. He remembers the look on the face of the young boy when the representative from JYP came to see him, can only imagine how he must have felt, having his entire dream shatter at one go so early in his career.
Wooseok plays with Jinhyuk’s fingers, his eyes distant. “I can’t see fame the same way after. I’m personally here, making trades with the devil himself because I have nothing left to lose.”
The clear exasperation on Jinhyuk’s face shows this is not the first time he’s heard this, yet he doesn’t say anything. Maybe not here, not now when their own anxieties are already eating on them inside out.
“Maybe you can be the Minhyun to Jinhyuk’s Jonghyun,” Seungwoo says, a touch of ugly humor in his voice.
(And the thought is there, isn’t it? Who are they to lie about not wanting to have what Nu’est got after walking away from this place?)
“No, thank you.” Wooseok chuckles. “I think I’d prefer being the Jonghyun.”
“The one that got away?” Kookheon smiles.
Seungyoun cheers softly, “In the 14th place, Kim Wooseok!”
They all chuckle at Seungyoun’s antics.
“I don’t think anyone will ever pull that off again,” Byungchan finally speaks for the first time.
Seungwoo caress his hair gently, because Byungchan is the only anchor he has in this entire showbiz. “No?”
“As much as I want it to happen to us,” Byungchan looks up at Seungwoo, big eyes somber. “It’s a one in a lifetime thing, don’t you think, hyung?”
Seungwoo doesn’t say yes. He doesn’t say anything. His throat is clenched and the last thing he wants is to break down in front of him, so he pulls Byungchan tighter instead and lets the younger snuggle deep into the crook of his neck. If Byungchan notices tears that glisten in his eyes, he doesn’t say anything.
“We don’t know that yet,” Kookheon offers kindly.
Seungwoo shoots him a grateful look.
“I don’t want to imagine getting separated,” Jinhyuk says, and his face shifts between a determined frown and a pained, wistful look as his fingers once again find Wooseok’s. “If it were up to me, I’d rather we get out of here together, either in the debut group or eliminated.”
Wooseok’s attempt at faking a laugh sounds too much like a sob. He tries to tease him, “You’re helpless without me, I get it.”
Jinhyuk rolls his eyes, but there is sad mirth that makes Wooseok hears what is unsaid.
For two people who have been together for too long, will they be able to function properly if it ever comes down to that scenario?
“I’d rather Byungchan and I get out of here at finals,” Seungwoo shares his desire, and there is no spite in his tone, just an open and honest confession. He feels Byungchan gripping him tighter. He continues, feeling the need to clarify, “Trust me, I want it all just as much as everyone in this building do.”
“You’d just rather do it with the brothers you’ve spent years training with,” Seungyoun finishes for him. “I’d rather have that too, if it were up to me.”
“I can’t do this to Alice who’s been there since the very beginning, too.” He covers his own eyes with the arm that isn’t holding Byungchan. He’s been trying to put himself in their position, to imagine how they must feel. “How could you look at them in the eyes and say ‘please support me’ without wondering how they might think, ‘have we not been enough?’”
“Hyung,” Yuvin interjects, and he looks like he has been struck by a crude realization. “That’s not why—“
He stops, swallows, and clenches his jaws together, not knowing how to continue.
“Isn’t it, though?” Kookheon says, not unkindly.
Yuvin shakes his head in defiance, and Kookheon’s gaze drops to his clenched hands. He reaches out to hold them, to stop himself from drawing blood with how deeply his fingers dig into his skin.
“I—“ Yuvin chokes and clear his throat, because he has always been the crybaby between the two, “I just want to have my voice heard by a huge crowd, hyung,” he says softly.
“I know,” Kookheon, murmurs back. “We all do.”
(After all, they've left everything, including lifelong friendships and brotherhoods so that they can continue live and breathe music).
From the corner of his eyes, he sees Seungyoun looks away.
“Ah, I’m jealous,” he says, pulling his beanies to cover his eyes and turning to face the wall.
Wooseok, who has been resting against Jinhyuk the whole time, stares up at him, gets up, climbs to the top bunk where Seungyoun is lying down, and makes himself comfortable next to him.
He doesn’t touch Seunyoung. He just lies there, by his side.
“Why didn’t Sungjoo-sunbaenim come?” Wooseok asks, and it is what everyone has been whispering, and something that Seungyoun never openly shares. “I’m sure he would have gotten in.”
If there is anyone who can give zero crap and asks anyway, it would be Wooseok.
Seungyoun takes a deep breath. “Hyung is an old bastard.”
There are multiple layers of interpretation behind that response, and perhaps if they knew Seungyoun enough, they would be able to reach through each layers to find what is consuming him and why he masks them so well. Except, they don’t. None of them ever really knew each other aside from awkward bows on music shows and fake friendly interactions during ISAC that has been planned out beforehand to boost their social media activity.
They have never really bonded until this show, and the familiar faces, as well as the common hardships they’ve faced as failed idols somehow drew them together as a group.
They don’t have the time to pass selfie camera and pretend they’re cute to attract fans. They have done that, repeatedly, music shows after music shows, variety after variety. Skills. Individuality. Experience. Those are the three qualities they swore will set them apart from everybody else.
Let curious fans find their aegyo videos elsewhere, there are enough content to find at this point. Who knows, maybe if they’re lucky, the fans will love their original group instead of whatever replacement this show will offer and will wish for their elimination.
Wooseok turns to him and wraps his arm around Seunyoung’s torso. “What a baby.”
“Fuck you, I’m like, your sunbaenim. Wait until they hear about this mistreatment, Yibo will bite you.” Seungyoun spits back, and the spite is nothing but playful banter.
Jinhyuk cracks a grin, and so do Kookheon and Yuvin.
Seungwoo, still holding Byungchan, who is getting heavier with every breath, checks one last time. “You okay?”
Seungyoun pulls his beanie up with his free hand to meet his gaze in the dark.
“I’m not lonely,” Seungyoun insists with a grin, and for a second, he looks exactly like the easily excitable maknae who were jumping around from one place to another with his brothers trailing after him in exasperation and apology on his behalf. He continues, “I’ll debut here, hang around for five years, and hopefully by the time we disband, the world will be at peace and I can go back to UNIQ. If not, then I’ll at least have this to remember.”
“You’ll have this to remember,” Wooseok repeats, mocking. “Yah, you sound like those 3 months old trainees who got sent here to polish their skills and make connections and look cute on cameras.”
“And yet they’re the ones who’d most likely debut,” Seungyoun mocks back, “As much as we talk about wanting or not wanting to debut, you all know chances are only one or two of us are actually going to make it.”
It is too early to say from the current rankings, and they know that at the end of the day, skills will win out more hearts over face, but can anyone blame them for scoffing at the ridiculousness that was the first ranking announcement?
“No hate on the kids, because bless their youth and innocence and excitement and all that, but if they end up on the final line up, I hope they sober up fast.” Kookheon says. “Or they’re going to have to learn the hard way, like the rest of us did.”
“Or, the fame will get into their heads and they won’t ever learn,” Jinhyuk offers, a likely scenario for those who make it fast, too fast in this business. “I hope that doesn’t happen, Haenami is a good kid.”
Wooseok feigned a gasp, “How dare you, my sweet child would never!”
Jinhyuk shrugs, “I’m not saying it’ll happen. They’re green, but at least they’re smart. Look at Dongpyo, he reminds me of Lee Daehwi. Only a cuter version.”
“Dongpyo got a good head on his shoulder, he won’t do anything stupid.” Seungwoo joins in, more relaxed now that the topic has drifted to a mindless gossip.
“That’s why Hyung has been clinging onto him, right? So you can latch off of his screen time,” Wooseok spills to the room, a teasing smirk on his face.
Seungwoo flips him a lazy bird, and the rest of the room laughed.
“If I have to bet on the kids, I’m putting my money on Dohyon,” Seungyoun bids. “I like how you can just tell he doesn’t have any agendas.”
“I’m putting my money on Yohan, then.” Yuvin also bids.
Kookheon rolls his eyes, “No one will take you up on that. We know he’s making it.”
“Also—wait, actually, my sixth sense can’t see how he’s gonna do.”
“Sixth sense my ass,” Jinhyuk throws him a pillow, cackling.
Seungyoun gets up on his bed, suddenly energetic, “Wait, predict my fate!”
“You all are stupid and Byungchan is asleep. If any of your loud asses wake him up I’ll personally see to it that none of you debut,” Seungwoo glares tiredly at Seunyoung.
Seunyoung pouts and lets himself be pulled back by Wooseok.
“In all seriousness, though,” Jinhyuk calms down and lowers his voice because Byungchan does get pouty and cranky when he is tired—not that it’s not very cute. “I’d say we all have a pretty good chance.”
“To debut?” Kookheon checks, and the smile on his face says he is doubful.
“Not debut. Just to make it,” Jinhyuk says, grinning ear to ear like he is confident that their fate won’t go in a different direction. “I don’t care how, or where, or when it’s going to be. One thing I know is, this program has a high viewership rating and even if we’re not as pretty as the kids, we have the skill and the talent to actually impress people.”
“Speak for yourself,” Wooseok mutters. Fuck Jinhyuk. He is as pretty.
“So humble,” Yuvin shakes his head, matching Jinhyuk’s grin.
“Point is, we don’t have to make it to the final group. We just need to stay long enough to show people we got the skill and deserves to be on stage. Who knows, maybe they’ll debut another JBJ if they like us enough. We've gotten this far, we can't stop now.”
Jinhyuk is right.
There are thousands of different ways for people to make it in this industry. Sometimes, it’s a rapid rocket launch if you’re lucky and have all the right capital, but other times, it’s a slow, steady rise. Either way, what matters is they keep moving forward.
They have the talent, skill, and determination to make it. Just like previously debuted idols who had turned up in this program in the past, all they need is the proper exposure. With the right amount of screen time that will highlight their personal charms and a chance to show what they’ve got on stage, they have a good chance of making it one way or another.
Success is never guaranteed, but it is a comforting thought, to think the possibility is there.
Wooseok trades a knowing glance with Jinhyuk, and they both raise their point fingers in unison.
They pack their bags the day after, ready to head back for some time before they have to shoot the first elimination episode. If fansites catch sight of them hanging outside, it isn’t because they have hidden agendas to rise their ranking.
It is nothing but a show of unity of struggling idols who can’t seem to say goodbye to dreams of bigger stage just yet.
Together, they find the support needed to get through the show.
Together, they find justification in their greed for craving more, because they understand.
It’s the agreeable alternative to the companies they will forever prefer—their original groups—but push has come to shove and another battle has been called for.
So let them have this at the very least; of the desire that comes with dreaming, of the exhilaration of being on stage, of the strength they find together.
If fate continues to refuse to be kind, well, they’ll find another way to make it still.
After all, they've left everything once, to live and breathe music.
And nothing, absolutely nothing, can stop them now.