Jungwoo isn’t quite sure when it all started, but the fact that it did is indisputable. There’s just something about him that makes Jungwoo’s gaze linger a little longer and makes his smile that much sweeter. It started off platonic, like a young boy delighted with the approval of his older brother, but somewhere along the way, it morphed into something much more.
The joy he’d felt when he found out that he had passed the audition and was formally accepted as a trainee quickly dissipates into thin air. It’s only been two weeks (!) and he’s already exhausted – with hours of training following a full day of school, he passes out as soon as he steps out of the shower and collapses onto his bed. His mother worries, but Jungwoo knows that he just needs to get used to this new routine.
Thrown headfirst into training and with most of the other trainees busy with SR14B projects, Jungwoo hasn’t had much time to really interact with them and it’s not until one fine Thursday that he does. With a certain someone, that is.
Having been held back for a short while in school, he practically sprints off the bus and towards the company, scared out of his wits that he’ll be scolded for being late. He bursts into the practice studio with an apology ready on his tongue only to find his fellow trainees lounging on the floor, some stretching and others simply chatting amongst themselves.
“Yo!” Johnny spots him and waves with both arms. “Instructors are late! We get to chill for a bit.”
Jungwoo blinks. Well, there are gods looking down upon him today, it seems.
He sets his bag down and finds a nice spot where he can hopefully alleviate some of the tightness in his hamstrings before practice starts. Jaemin and Jeno are to his right, heads bent over one of their phones, and he catches a glimpse of some animated series on the screen before he turns away. Legs stretched out in front of him, he looks up at the mirrors in front of him and locks eyes with Jaehyun, who happens to be sitting just a few feet away.
Then Jaehyun smiles and Jungwoo feels his face explode with heat.
They’ve met previously, of course, but all that their interactions have amounted to are greetings in the hallways and brief conversations during practice about eight-counts and dance formations. Jungwoo doesn’t know the other very well, but he’s heard many good things about him, and he’s witnessed enough to know Jaehyun deserves his spot in the first debut lineup.
“It’s impressive,” Jaehyun says in lieu of hello, “how you juggle school and training at the same time. You have to be tired, but you’re always here dancing your butt off.”
Jungwoo laughs awkwardly, having always been unsure of how to handle compliments. “I want to do both, so this is what I must go through until I graduate. You uh, you’re studying and training at the same time too.” Suddenly aware that he should be stretching, he grabs hold of one foot and flops down over his leg.
Meanwhile, Jaehyun flashes him another smile. “Yeah, but you’re in a tech school. Like I said, impressive. Anyway, I hope things here are going alright for you. If any of these boys –” he waves a hand around them, “– are mean to you, you let me know, okay?”
“Ah, no, they’re all very nice to me. I mean, I don’t know them well yet, but they’re all really nice.”
Jaehyun snorts, arms extended behind him and palms flat on the floor. “Wait until you get to know them, then. Some are pure evil, I tell you. Right, Donghyuck?”
“Huh?” Donghyuck looks up at the mention of his name and squints over at them. “What’d you say?”
“Nothing,” Jaehyun grins, all straight teeth and innocence. He turns back to Jungwoo. “We should grab food sometime. You like ramen?”
After that, the rest is history.
They become fast friends, and wherever one is, the other is sure to be as well. On the surface, it may seem like an unlikely match, but Jaehyun either rises to meet Jungwoo’s energy or manages to bring it down, and Jungwoo simply feels at ease in Jaehyun’s presence.
After practice, they always grab dinner before heading home, caps and masks on as they take the bus, seated shoulder to shoulder. Through Jaehyun, Jungwoo grows closer with the other trainees, and life settles into a comfortable (and enjoyable, if one doesn’t think about how demanding it all is) routine.
With Jaehyun already introduced as an SM Rookies member, their schedules don’t overlap as much as they would. As Jaehyun handles multiple projects at once – choreography videos, concert performances, even an upcoming gig as an emcee on Music Show – and Jungwoo focuses on school and improving as a trainee, they collect a large number of stories between the two of them that they share during their downtime.
Jaehyun shows him dance practice videos and sneaky shots of Johnny playing the piano as Taeil sings along and tells him about what it’s like to have an actual photoshoot. In return, over steaming bowls of jjajangmyeon or boxes of fragrant fried chicken, Jungwoo tells him about class, about the fun white lies he’s been spinning to keep his school friends from finding out where he’s going after school all this time. He tells Jaehyun of the absolute nonsense that Jaemin and Donghyuck come up with during practice and how Jisung has gotten so good at dodging the hugs that Jaemin insists on giving him on an hourly basis.
Days and weeks and months fly by like this, everyone too caught up in their responsibilities to really notice where the time has gone. Before Jungwoo knows it, he’s called in and informed that he’ll be taking part in the upcoming SM Rookies shows. Not as an official member, much less centre stage, but he’s more than happy with the opportunity. He barely has time to digest the information before his phone rings, Jaehyun’s name lighting up the screen.
“You’re joining us, right?”
“Um, yeah, I think so?”
“About time!” There’s a whole lot of noise on the other end and Jungwoo listens as Jaehyun pulls the phone away to yell something back. “I gotta go, but I’ll see you tomorrow at practice, okay? Bye, Woo!”
The call ends before Jungwoo can say goodbye, but he pockets his phone with a smile.
The first time Jungwoo feels an inkling of what he would deem affection, they’re backstage getting ready for their first Rookies show. Mark’s off in a corner, bent over his knees in an attempt to keep his iPod away from a laughing Johnny who’s attempting to nick it, and Doyoung’s chasing after Jaemin who apparently does not want to have his hair done.
To his surprise, he doesn’t feel too nervous. He wouldn’t be in the spotlight after all, so if he does happen to make a mistake or two, the fans watching probably wouldn’t notice, right? Besides, why would they choose to watch him when they could watch any of the others?
Once the final touch of make-up is brushed over the bridge of his nose, Jungwoo vacates his seat for the next person and settles down onto the lumpy couch shoved up against a wall. From his corner, Jungwoo watches as his friends run through some choreo, Jisung a tiny hurricane in the middle.
Then the couch dips with added weight and Jungwoo turns to see Jaehyun there, a light in his eyes that can only come from young dreamers ready to take on the world.
“You ready? Our own show! It’s not even our debut yet but it feels like everything we’ve done is already coming to fruition.” He slings an arm across Jungwoo’s shoulders. “Hope you’re not too nervous.”
“I’m feeling okay, actually. It’s you guys’ show, I’m just there for much-needed practice.” He speaks very matter-of-factly, but Jaehyun doesn’t seem to like it.
“What are you talking about? It’s your show just as much as it is ours. You’re one of us, okay, no matter what people say.” He gives Jungwoo’s shoulder a squeeze and when Jungwoo chances a glance at Jaehyun’s profile, his heart does a little funny skip.
Maybe it’s the certainty in his voice or the gentle sweep of his lashes when he blinks, but Jungwoo is 87% sure this thing he’s feeling in the depths of his chest cavity is new. Yeah, he’s had crushes before, if you count a fourteen-year-old thinking that his classmate is cute the same thing.
But this? This feels different. This comes with a weird ache – not a bad ache, Jungwoo reflects – lingering in the background and a warmth that reaches from the pit of his stomach all the way to the tips of his fingers.
“Okay,” he says, and presses a little closer.
Days before NCT U’s debut, Jungwoo receives a text from Jaehyun containing the raw audio files of both The 7th Sense and Without You. He’s supposed to be at vocal practice in…eight minutes, but he immediately detours off into an empty practice room and plugs his earphones in.
The 7th Sense makes a great debut single – the unusual musicality of the track helping it stand out from the slew of typical K-Pop songs out there. There’s a chance that people will not like it simply because of this difference, but that’s the price to pay if one prefers art over profit.
Jungwoo, however, prefers Without You, and the reason is simple: he gets to hear Jaehyun’s voice more. He sits there, back against the wall in a dark room, and keeps his eyes closed as he repeats the track twice more. He’ll be late to practice, and he’ll probably get reprimanded, but these are his best friend’s debut songs! It’s a good enough reason, he thinks.
They’re amazing, Jae. You all sound so good. Can’t wait for the MV!
He’s so proud of them – it’s hard not to be when he’s witnessed first-hand the amount of effort that they have put into preparing for their debut. Their stars will only shine brighter from now on.
There is one thing that he did not take into account, however, and that is just how busy the debuted members’ schedules become. With NCT U’s debut comes a flurry of new projects and suddenly, a whole bunch of people once cemented in Jungwoo’s life are ripped right out of it. For weeks, he receives barely a handful of sporadic texts from them, everyone busy with stage performances and filming for NCT Life.
For a while, he feels something akin to loss. It’s weird not being around some of the people that he’s seen daily for nearly two years, and there have been moments where he wants to call them just to hear them talk. He misses their presence tremendously (especially Jaehyun, but he’ll keep that tidbit to himself, thank you very much), but it helps that he still has the others. Instead of Jaehyun, he spends his free time with Lucas and Kun, gets snacks from the corner shop with Donghyuck, and steals hugs from a willing Jaemin and a squirmy Jisung.
It’s not the same, but he doesn’t expect it to be.
He’s old enough to know that it’s smarter to push their absences to the side and focus on training, so he does just that, although there are times late in the night where his thumb hovers over Jaehyun’s name on his messages list. It never taps against the screen, however, and the phone ends up set aside on his bedside table.
Then NCT 127 debuts, taking with it even more of his friends, followed soon by all the younger ones in NCT Dream. It turns out that the year 2016 has imparted more than just improved dance skills and vocal abilities on Jungwoo – it also gave him a plethora of life lessons to boot.
He barely has time to mentally wrap up the year before 2017 rises out of the shadows and throws him a curveball that he almost fails to catch. The company officially introduces him as a Rookie, he gets his first feature in a music video, and some photos of him at an SMTown concert goes around the internet. It’s weird, having people actually recognise him when he’s out on the streets, much less the fact that he has fans.
Promoting as a Rookie is…interesting. He doesn’t have the responsibilities of a debuted idol, but everything he does is still documented and closely watched. Spending time with Lucas and Kun has another purpose now, be it selfies or short videos that they upload onto social media platforms, and there’s a part of Jungwoo that isn’t quite ready for that yet.
It helps that he now has NCT’s Night Night to listen to whenever he feels too overwhelmed. He’s missed Jaehyun’s voice, and the banter between him and Johnny (and the weekly Doyoung) is always fun to listen to.
“You doing okay?”
Jungwoo startles, unaware that he’d let his thoughts drift until Jaemin’s voice cut through the fog. Ever since Jaemin had gone on his hiatus, Jungwoo has tried his best to visit him on a regular basis despite knowing that he is still very much in contact with the others in Dream. It’s just – he knows what it feels like, to watch your friends from afar.
“Huh? Oh, yeah, just zoned out for a little there.”
Jaemin raises an eyebrow. “You’re not the type to zone out.”
“Been a long couple of weeks,” Jungwoo says, standing to grab the cup of coffee that Jaemin was reaching for. “How many cups of coffee have you had today, by the way?”
A dismissive wave of a hand as Jaemin takes a large gulp, exhaling in contentment once the caffeine goes down his throat. “Not important! Hey, if you have anything on your mind, you know you can talk to any one of us.” He peers at Jungwoo over the rim of the cup. “Aren’t you really close to the other Jae? For the record, I’m the more interesting one.” He winks and Jungwoo laughs.
“Yeah, you’re definitely something else. And uh, yeah I guess? We haven’t spoken in a while though – he’s been way too busy recently.”
An unimpressed sound comes from Jaemin’s direction. “That’s no excuse. If you wanna keep a relationship going, you gotta work for it. How else would I know all of Jeno’s secrets?”
Jaemin pauses, cup once again halfway to his lips. “Eh, relationship, friendship, whatever. The difference doesn’t matter.”
The boy may be young and (extremely) eccentric, but he’s sharper and more mature than people give him credit for. He’s not wrong – Jungwoo sits back and stares out the window, letting Jaemin’s words take up free real estate in his brain.
It’s one disgustingly hot day at the start of July that he finds himself face-to-face with the one person he thinks of on a daily basis, the one person he hasn’t seen for the longest time apart from brief glances in the hallways. He looks good, Jungwoo thinks; but then again, when does Jaehyun ever look bad?
He’s not too keen on the camo print though, if he’s being honest.
It’s been just a few minutes since they’ve arrived on the set of Cherry Bomb, but Kun and Sicheng have already naturally gravitated to each other, easily slipping into their mother tongue as the latter drags Kun around. Meanwhile, Jungwoo attempts to walk in a straight line as Donghyuck hangs off his back and Mark chatters away by his side.
“Whoa, are those wires? Is someone gonna be in the air?”
“That would be our dear Taeil,” Donghyuck informs him, before blowing a stream of air right into his ear.
Jungwoo yelps, Donghyuck laughs, and a voice that sounds very much like Jaehyun’s goes, “Woo?”
The moment Jungwoo turns towards the voice and sees Jaehyun in all his camo’ed glory (?), his stomach does a stupidly embarrassing flop and his cheeks flush with heat.
Donghyuck finally relinquishes his grip on Jungwoo and Jaehyun steps in to fill that sudden void, an arm winding around his shoulders to pull him in for a hug. Through all the hairspray, Jungwoo manages to pick up on the subtle scent of sage and he takes a deep breath.
“Been a while, huh? You’ve grown like two inches or something, what the hell? Hope no one’s replaced me as your ramen buddy.” Jaehyun says it so casually, but the mere thought of it doesn’t sit well with Jungwoo. Donghyuck and Mark seem to have vanished into thin air.
“What? No one can replace you,” he says, frowning. He sees a flicker of surprise pass over Jaehyun’s face before it smooths out into its usual handsomeness. Then Jaehyun looks away, a small smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
“Yeah, no one can replace you, either.” Gesturing to somewhere in the background, he says, “There’s a food truck around the corner, you hungry? Come on.”
For fifteen minutes, with Jaehyun’s knee against his own and a bowl of spicy chicken in front of him, everything seems right.
That night, Jungwoo scrolls through the selfies that Kun had snapped of them with the 127 members. If he lingers on the only one he’d taken with Jaehyun, mapping out the curve of his smile or the way his hair falls around his eyes…well, no one’s the wiser.
Lucas flops over his lap to chat to Ten, and while the guy’s heavier than he looks, Jungwoo doesn’t mind the weight, not when he’s thrumming with excitement at the fact that he’ll finally be able to perform with his friends on stage as a member of NCT. Along with company staff, there must be close to two dozen people stuffed into the practice studio – all here for a briefing on the NCT 2018 project, for which preparations are due to start in a week. As they wait for the last couple of people to trickle in, Jungwoo lets his gaze roam across the room.
Jaemin looks just as happy as he feels, all smiles as he watches Renjun and Donghyuck squabble. Jeno’s got a hand on his back, thumb pressing lightly into areas that Jungwoo suspects tend to give Jaemin trouble. It’s special, he thinks, the bond those two shares. He’s just about to look away when Jaemin catches his eye. The younger winks, waggles his eyebrows, and mouths hwaiting!
The door opens and the remaining few members enter. Yuta, followed by Sicheng, then Jaehyun bringing up the rear. Jaehyun looks warm, is Jungwoo’s immediate thought. He almost looks small in that hoodie, with the hood up around his ears and sleeves nearly past his hands.
He doesn’t get to think about it further, however, because Taeyong calls for everyone’s attention and the weight on his lap disappears.
There’s no easing into the album preparations; they’re thrown headfirst into it all, from filming the Yearbook videos to vocal recordings to choreography. Sleep becomes a luxury, because when you’re someone who expects 110% from yourself, you end up sacrificing sleep for practice. And that’s exactly what Jungwoo ends up doing.
He becomes so hyper-focused on perfecting everything that it takes Mark telling Johnny, then Johnny telling Jaehyun, then Jaehyun literally barging into one of his practice sessions for him to pause.
“Jungwoo, we finished learning the choreography to Boss three days ago and I don’t think you’ve left this room since.” Jaehyun strides over to the speaker system and switches it off, and Jungwoo is left wide-eyed, chest heaving, in the middle of the silent room. “I know it’s your debut, and I know you want to do well, but this is not the way to do it.”
His shirt is sticking to his back and the soles of his feet are aching something crazy, but he barely registers any of that. There are so many thoughts exploding inside his head (because what the fuck is happening?) but the one that escapes is: “I – you guys practice every day too.” The second the words leave his mouth, Jungwoo wants to wince.
Jaehyun stares at him for a second before he sighs. “We train every day, yeah, but we leave when it’s time to and we rest as much as we can. I asked around and apparently, you haven’t had a meal with any of the other members since Monday, the day I had to drag you out for dinner. Do you even know what time it is now, Woo? Without looking at the clock.”
Perhaps it’s due to the accumulated stress or the lack of sleep, but Jungwoo isn’t really in the mood to be lectured right now. He turns back to the mirrors; screw the music, he can do this without it. It’s not as if he hasn’t been listening to the track on repeat for hours, anyway.
“Just go home,” he mutters, attempting to roll out the stiffness in his shoulders. “I’m fine. I want to get a bit more practice in.”
“I’m not leaving unless you’re coming with me. You’re being ridiculous, how much sleep have you been getting?”
Jungwoo runs fingers through his sweaty hair and shuts his eyes. He can feel his nerves fraying – another minute of this and he’ll either cry or punch a mirror. “It doesn’t matter, I can always catch up on sleep. Give me fifteen minutes, okay? Fifteen minutes and I’ll go home.”
There’s a pause, then Jaehyun simply goes, “No.”
“Why the hell not?”
Okay, seems like the tears have won.
“Because you’re running yourself into the ground and I care about you, you idiot.”
Jungwoo’s not quite sure how, but Jaehyun somehow crosses half the width of the room in a split second. Then there are arms around him and a shoulder right there for him to cry on, so he does.
“It’s hard,” he hears himself say, the words muffled into the fabric of Jaehyun’s sweater. They’re a pile of tangled limbs on the floor now, probably a pathetic sight to see. “Everyone’s so good at everything. I don’t want to be the weakest link or the –”
“I’m going to stop you right there.” A hand moves up the expanse of his back and Jungwoo exhales in both pain and relief when Jaehyun presses down on the pressure point at the base of his skull. “Do you trust me?”
Stupid question. He voices just as much.
“Well, then trust me when I say you have nothing to prove to anyone. You’ll smash everyone’s expectations out of the water.”
Jungwoo doesn’t answer, but it seems as though Jaehyun doesn’t need one.
A couple of weeks later finds him and the others dressed top to toe in black. Split up into groups of three, they’re all waiting for their time to film. There are cameras everywhere, hoarding content for behind the scene videos to be released in the future. Conversation and laughter flow from every direction and Jungwoo has to admit that the buzz in the atmosphere is quite enjoyable.
He’s getting another blast of hairspray in his hair when Jaehyun appears in his line of sight.
“Doing okay?” They haven’t really addressed what went down in the practice room all those days ago, but Jaehyun has been checking up on him regularly since. Under his watchful eye, Jungwoo has been eating better, sleeping better, and practising smarter.
Jungwoo hums. “Yeah, I’m much better.” He waits until the hairstylist finds a new target and jogs off before continuing. “I’m uh, happy I’m doing this with you.” He waves a hand at their surroundings.
Jaehyun’s earring glints in the light when he tilts his head, an amused smile on his face. “Guess we got lucky, huh?”
“You sure about that?” Jungwoo nods in Lucas’ direction and Jaehyun laughs.
He files that laughter away for later, should he need it.
Fresh off the heels of their fourth win for Regular comes Halloween. The SM Annual Halloween Party is such a big event that they’ve decided on their costumes several weeks ago in order to give their staff enough time to obtain and/or create everything.
Seated in the make-up chair with the wig on and the fabric of his dress around his shins, Jungwoo still can’t quite believe that he had the guts to suggest going as Jaehyun’s counterpart. What’s even more surprising is Jaehyun agreeing to it.
They’d split up for the dressing up process, thanks to Jaehyun saying that he wants to be surprised with the final look, so he’s got Johnny and a filming Doyoung to keep him company instead. As Jungwoo blends into Rose and the look comes together, he has to admit that he’d made a damned good decision.
“You…really suit this,” Johnny says, sounding a little befuddled with whatever realisation has just dawned on him. “I don’t think anyone out there is ready for Jungrose. Hell, I’m watching your transformation and I’m not ready.”
Jungwoo wants to laugh, but there’s a lip liner hovering mere millimetres away from his lips and he’d rather not accidentally stab himself up the nose. “I better win something,” he quips. “It’s so hot underneath all this hair and fabric.”
“Hey, at least you’re not wearing fake boobs,” Johnny points out. “Good luck dancing to Regular in a wig, dress, and fake boobs. Oh man, imagine if –” His phone pings. “Ooh, Jae is already done. Not that his costume takes a lot of effort, I suppose.” Johnny turns the phone to face Jungwoo, and there on the screen is the Jack to his Rose. “Man’s lookin’ handsome, huh?”
“He always looks handsome,” Jungwoo says absently, too caught up in thinking about how the beret looks so darn cute perched on Jaehyun’s head.
“Jeez,” laughs Johnny, “you know that you guys are just dressing up as Jack and Rose, right? You don’t actually have to be in love with him.”
Jungwoo blinks at his own reflection, eyes wide and artificially blue. “I’m not,” he says, perhaps a second too late. Thankfully, Johnny is too busy with whatever he’s doing on his phone to process his response and Jungwoo swallows past the fluttering of his pulse in his throat.
He endures another twenty minutes of make-up and hair before his costume is deemed to be complete. Johnny had left just a few minutes before to wriggle into his Tony the Tiger suit, so when he turns the corner, the only person that the camera in Taeyong’s hand picks up is him.
“Whoa,” Ten says, gaze sweeping over him from head to toe. “Dude, you’re... pretty.”
“Thanks? You look good too, long hair suits you.”
Ten’s eyebrows shoot up to his (fake) hairline. “I’m a literal peasant compared to you. Have you seen yourself?”
“Daaaaaamn,” comes booming out real loud, the drawn-out syllable seeming to echo in the room. “Who’s this pretty lady!”
Jungwoo cringes. “‘Cas, that’s nasty, please never say that again.”
“Don’t let Jaehyun hear you hitting on him,” Taeyong laughs, reaching up to fix a wayward strand of hair.
Lucas shrugs, ever-present grin on his face as he plucks at Jungwoo’s sleeve. He gives Jungwoo a wink and Jungwoo rolls his eyes skyward with a laugh. Some things will never change. “Well, he’s not here, is he?”
“Ah, except I am.” Over the heads of the other members, Jungwoo sees that beret float closer, then Jaehyun appears between Kun and Jaemin. Jaehyun walks up to him and tucks him into his side. “Who was flirting with the person of my dreams?”
“That’d be Thor,” Jaemin says helpfully. He prods one of Lucas’ fake muscles. “You know, the big, buff, lightning-infused Norse god.”
Jaehyun purses his lips and Jungwoo can’t help but stare at the dimple that forms. “I don’t think I’ll win in a fight against Thor,” he sighs in mock disappointment, looking over at Jungwoo. “I am but a poor artist. Sorry, love.”
Donghyuck cackles. “Hope you guys know that I’ll be using this as blackmail material in the future.”
Right then, Chenle comes walking into the room with his balloon and his absolutely terrifying clown make-up, effectively commandeering everyone’s attention in an instant. The boys flock to his side, Jisung asking to hold the balloon and Donghyuck begging Chenle to do the jig.
Jungwoo and Jaehyun, however, remain right where they are.
“Johnny told me I’d be surprised, and he was right. Kate Winslet can’t compare to you,” Jaehyun says, and Jungwoo flushes to the tips of his ears.
Later, as they’re filming the costume party and My Heart Will Go On plays, Jaehyun walks out and Jungwoo finds himself thinking about Johnny’s words.
You don’t actually have to be in love with him.
He thanks the gods for his innate variety talents, because if it were really up to him, he would’ve completely messed up his introduction. But as it is, instincts carry him straight through with the dainty Jack, Jack! and the iconic couple pose.
What follows right after, however, cannot be attributed to his innate variety talents.
He turns his head just as Jaehyun turns his, and the first thing that pops into his mind when he looks at the gentle swell of Jaehyun’s bottom lip is: I want to kiss him. Then his brain short-circuits, because the grip on his hips tightens for the briefest of moments before it loosens and he finds himself steered back to the members.
Oh, he’s so screwed.
Sicheng’s temporary departure from the group leads to both expected and unexpected consequences. The fans are upset – expected – and the fans are upset at him – unexpected.
Jungwoo knows, from experience and from everyone else telling him so, that it’s always best not to search up your name on Naver or Twitter or any form of social media. Netizens can be vicious, the worst of them never willing to consider how others might feel before releasing a storm of unwarranted criticism. But which idol manages to stay away from searching up their own names without fail?
It’s human nature, he supposes, the need for praise and approval.
Not long after Neo City – The Origin was announced, he’d stumbled across comments questioning if he deserved to be part of 127’s tour so soon after his debut in the group and why Sicheng, an ‘original’ member, had to forgo being in the concert. He’s riding the coattails of his members’ hard work, they say, and he shouldn’t have taken Sicheng’s place nor opportunity.
Of course, there are positive and encouraging comments as well, but he’s always been the type to dwell on the negatives.
Doyoung finds him in the company gym one evening, feet pounding off the belt of the treadmill and all outside noises blocked out by headphones. Jungwoo sees him approaching through the reflection in the window panes, but he doesn’t acknowledge his friend’s presence until a hand appears out of the corner of his eye and jabs at the Lower Speed button.
Sighing inwardly, Jungwoo slips his headphones off.
“So you wanna tell me why you’re here running…” Doyoung peers at the treadmill, “ten kilometres when it’s nearly midnight?”
“People go on late night runs,” Jungwoo replies, slowing down to a walk. “It’s not unusual.”
“It’s unusual for you. You’d be foraging in the kitchen for snacks or watching anime with Yuta, but you’re here instead. Donghyuck sent me to find you because he says it feels weird playing Kart Rider without you around.”
Jungwoo’s tempted to just brush this off, like he always does with his issues, but when he looks at Doyoung and sees the evident concern on his friend’s face, he decides against it.
“Do you think I deserve being in the concert?”
It’s clear that this isn’t what Doyoung was expecting.
“What? Yeah, of course, why wouldn’t you deserve it?”
Jungwoo shrugs, focusing on placing one foot in front of the other. “People are saying that I don’t. Something about not being in 127 long enough, or taking Sicheng’s place, or –”
Doyoung slaps the emergency stop button and Jungwoo nearly trips over his own feet at the sudden halt. His hip collides with the machine and he frowns at Doyoung. “That’ll bruise, you know.”
“Rub at it,” Doyoung retorts. “Woo, no offence, but don’t be stupid. Why would you take those words to heart? We know how hard you’ve worked to be in 127 – hell, you know how hard you’ve worked to be in 127. You’re not Sicheng’s replacement because one, he cannot be replaced, and two, you are your own person. Your addition to 127 is separate from his departure.”
A bottle of water is thrust in front of him and Jungwoo takes it.
“You’ve been with us since the beginning. Just because some fans don’t know that doesn’t mean you get to forget it.” Doyoung pokes his cheek. “Now come on, let’s go home.”
Their schedules in the United States really help take his mind off things. It’s his first time in North America and everything just seems so shiny and new and exciting. The fact that he gets to spend time with some of his favourite people in the world is just the cherry on top.
He visits the aquarium with Doyoung, goes on a supper run with Mark, chases after Donghyuck at Miami Beach. Plays beer pong with the guys, takes photos with curious little girls, and lets Johnny buy him a pair of Ray-Bans. They film the music video for Highway to Heaven, and that is truly a memory to treasure. Being out in the desert, surrounded by a vast expanse of sky and land and accompanied by the faraway sounds of cars rushing by, it’s almost surreal.
Jungwoo’s outside enjoying the breeze, listening to the voices of Yuta and Mark as they chat just off to the side. There’s no end to the desert as far as his eyes can see; it’s a humbling thought, knowing that he is but one speck in an immeasurable world. The door to a trailer closes and Jungwoo turns around at the sound to see Jaehyun standing a few feet away from the trailer, head bent as he tucks his shirt into his pants.
The pastel blue of his hair matches beautifully with the sky, and when Jaehyun lifts his head, eyes squinting against the sunlight, Jungwoo is struck with the simple thought of how perfect he looks. The crisp whiteness of his shirt against the cream of his skin, the elegant line of his neck, the – oh god, he’s looking over here.
Jaehyun walks over, each step kicking up a small cloud of dust.
“Never thought we’d have the chance to film a music video in the Mojave Desert,” Jaehyun says as soon as he’s within earshot. “It’ll be hard to top this in the future.”
“The MV will turn out great,” Jungwoo agrees. “Everything and everyone looks good.”
Then there are fingers in his hair, gentle so as to not mess up the carefully styled strands. “Your hair looks like cotton candy.”
“Is that a good thing?”
“It’s a great thing. Suits you.”
They stand together in companionable silence for a while and Jungwoo counts the passing cars in an attempt to distract himself from the feeling of Jaehyun’s arm against his own. It’s small moments like these that further solidify the gnawing suspicion growing inside of him that he’s falling – or perhaps, already fallen – for his groupmate, his friend, his…dunno, everything?
The world just seems a little better with him around.
“A part of me doesn’t want to go back to Korea,” he admits. “I’m having such a good time here.”
“You look like you are,” Jaehyun agrees.
“Yeah, you’ve been laughing and smiling more. It’s infectious, you know. Everyone’s in a good mood lately. I like it when you’re actually happy and not pretending to be.” He tilts his head up towards the sun and Jungwoo tracks the dip of his Adam’s apple when he swallows and exhales. “Sometimes, when you’re not happy and you try your best to not let it show, I feel sorry that the rest of us can’t seem to help.”
Jungwoo feels his gut churn.
“You do,” he says, quiet. “You help. I wish you knew just how much.”
Right then, someone yells for all of them to gather and Jungwoo moves to hop off the pile of rocks they’re on. Before he can, however, Jaehyun stops him with a hand around the wrist and says, “I know you’ve got the others, you’ve got Mark, you’ve got Doyoung – but you’ve got me too, okay?”
Jungwoo swats him on the arm. “Don’t make me feel all sentimental; I’m gonna cry and my make-up is gonna get ruined and then you’re gonna get scolded for causing the delay in filming.”
But impulse takes over and he twists around to pull Jaehyun into a quick hug.
Hours later, he can still feel the soft pressure of hands on his back.
He tries his very best to steel both his mind and resolve, but ultimately, the fact remains that he’s just not strong enough. It’s the day after NCT 127’s three year anniversary that he makes his decision. On hindsight, he should probably reflect on why arriving at that decision took little to no thought whatsoever.
The only person he tells is their manager, and that’s only because he has to in order to figure out all the technicalities. Once it’s settled, he tells their manager that he wants to inform his members himself, and does just that on the last day of the SMTown concert in Tokyo.
With everyone riding the concert high, it takes a fair bit of effort for Jungwoo to gather the other eight and have them pay attention to what he’s about to say. There’s no privacy, not when they’re in a huge dressing room with half a dozen staff members within earshot, but Jungwoo knows he needs to tell them now.
When he does, no one says anything for the longest time.
Then Mark bursts out, “What?!”
That seems to set off an avalanche of questions, from Doyoung’s why didn’t you tell us to Taeyong’s can we change your mind, and Jungwoo doesn’t quite know where to start. In the back, Jaehyun stays silent.
“I’ll be back,” is what Jungwoo goes with. “It’s just for a little while. I need time to…work on myself, really. I’ll come back better and stronger, I promise.”
Donghyuck, seemingly very upset with the entire situation, is grumbling to himself under his breath. Johnny spares him a glance and sets a comforting hand on his back.
“When do you leave?”
When Jungwoo looks at him, he feels his heart squeeze. The man’s got his hands on his lap, fingers laced into a loose fist, and he seems to be staring very intently at his nails. Jungwoo waits for him to look up, but he doesn’t.
“I won’t be joining you guys for the Capitol Congress event.”
“That’s in three days.”
Still, he does not look up.
He’s jetlagged, starving, and in need of a long shower, but he also needs to finish packing up his stuff. The members had wanted to wait until he was ready to go, but he’d told them all to get some rest – they have to fly off again in less than twenty-four hours and they need their sleep. So after a flurry of hugs (each one bringing him closer to the brink of tears), he finds himself placing the rest of his clothes into a suitcase, watched over by Taeil who’s perched on the edge of his bed.
“You’ll message us regularly, right?”
“Of course, I’ll video call and everything.”
He zips up the suitcase, grabs his pillow, and looks around his dorm room one last time.
Taeil gets to his feet, presumably to walk Jungwoo out, but Jaehyun appears in the doorway and says, “I’ll take him.”
Jaehyun’s hair is wet and he smells like his shower gel, and without all the make-up and fancy clothes, Jungwoo thinks he looks younger than his age.
“How are you getting home?”
“My dad’s downstairs.”
Jaehyun hums, lips pressed together, and they walk to the front door in silence.
“I’m sorry. For leaving. It’s not –”
“You don’t have to apologise. None of us are upset at you; if this is what you need, then we support you all the way.”
“I know you were pretty sad when Sicheng left for WayV.” He stops to pull on his shoes. “I felt really bad having to do that to you again. I know having friends leave, temporary or otherwise, isn’t a very pleasant feeling.”
“That’s different,” Jaehyun says. “We always knew he would eventually debut in WayV and that WayV would be his priority.” He reaches past Jungwoo to unlock the door, then pauses with a hand on the handle. “And you’re not just –”
He exhales heavily, leaving Jungwoo with a whole bunch of unanswered questions. The door swings open. “Nevermind. Here, pass me that bag, I’ll head downstairs with you.”
“No, it’s okay. You’re in your pyjamas, it’s late, you guys have to be up early tomorrow.”
Their eyes meet and Jungwoo knows he’s going to miss the hell out of him.
“Okay. Don’t forget to call us.”
Jaehyun moves like he’s about to go in for a hug, but Jungwoo turns away and drags his stuff out into the hallway. If he hugs Jaehyun now, he’s gonna want to stay, and he cannot stay.
“I’ll miss you guys,” he says instead, throat working to keep his voice even. “See you soon.”
Blessedly, the hiatus does him well. He spends time with his family, meets up with a bunch of close friends, and goes to a few therapy sessions to work on his anxiety. As his mental health improves and strengthens, he finds himself really wanting to get back to work. He wants to be back on stage with the others, wants to be back in the recording booths and the dance studios.
He’s been following their schedules, cheering them on through texts and calls, and if it wasn’t for the fact that he’s not physically there with them, things would seem perfectly normal.
A few months go by and Jungwoo thinks it’s time.
He picks a day where he knows that none of the members will be in the company, bundles up in a coat and beanie, and makes his way back. He’d scheduled a meeting with their managers and other involved staff to discuss his return, and during his journey back, he feels not a single ounce of nerves.
It’s good. He feels good.
It’s evening by the time he gets out of the meeting, head swimming with all the information he’d been given. There’s a comeback on the horizon, they’d told him, and he’d picked the perfect time to return. So in just a few weeks’ time, he’ll be moving back in with the others – with Jaehyun as his roommate.
Jungwoo goes home and finds his mother in the kitchen.
“Mom,” he says, stepping closer and hugging her around the middle. “Thank you for taking care of me.”
She kisses him on the cheek. “A mother just wants her child to be happy.”
“I am.” And he means it.
Being able to wrap his arms around Jaehyun again has Jungwoo beaming into the other’s shoulder. It doesn’t make up for the hug that he’d denied himself all those months ago, but that’s all in the past and dwelling on it won’t do him any good.
During his break, he’d finally admitted to himself that his feelings for the person currently holding him close is very much real, and has been so for a long time. after all, who misses someone so much to the point of repeating I Like Me Better for a two whole nights nonstop? It was a whole amalgamation of thoughts (there’s no way he feels the same; I shouldn’t feel this way) and circumstances (they’re idols! and men!) that kept him in denial, but he’d learned since that it’s always best to acknowledge his own feelings.
“I’m happy you’re back,” he hears, and Jungwoo can’t help the happy sound that comes out.
“I’m happy I’m back. It’s weird not being around you guys every day, dancing and singing and performing.”
“Yeah, it’s been weird for us, too. Donghyuck’s had to work double-time to make up for your absence, but it’s not the same; his mood-making is different from yours.”
Jungwoo pulls his head back and squints at Jaehyun. “You’re my favourite, you know?”
The look of confusion that crosses Jaehyun’s face – that stupidly gorgeous face that he’s missed to hell and back – is adorable and Jungwoo grins.
“What does that mean?”
Before he can answer, however, Taeyong calls out their names. It’s dinnertime.
But that’s okay. If now isn’t the time, then there will be a better opportunity later down the road. Jungwoo walks towards the door and turns to smile at his roommate. “I’ll tell you one day.”
One day turns out to be the day of their Beyond Live concert.
He’s not quite sure what spurred him to do it, but it felt right. Jaehyun’s skin is warm against his, heart beating steadily from where his fingertips are placed over Jaehyun’s pulse point, and Jungwoo is so sure that he wants this for as long as he can possibly have it.
A voice in his ear reminds him of where they are, but some risks are meant to be taken. So he pulls back and presses a kiss to Jaehyun’s cheek, hand sliding around the back of his neck to settle along the line of his jaw. Before his guts leave him, Jungwoo kisses him once more on the corner of his mouth.
“You’re my favourite, you know?”
He laughs, happy because he has finally gotten this off his chest, and jogs off towards the stage. Seconds later, he hears familiar footsteps running after him, and his smile grows even wider.
Jaehyun catches up with him, eyes bright and colour riding high on his cheeks. He grabs ahold of Jungwoo’s hand.
Yuta comes whistling in their direction, perhaps a little too close for this conversation, but Jungwoo couldn’t care less.
Blood thunders through his ears, heart beating double-time as Jungwoo waits for Jaehyun to say something. He’s perfectly aware that there’s the possibility Jaehyun wants to remain friends and he’ll have to deal with heartbreak right before they’re due to go on stage, but…
Jaehyun gives his hand a squeeze. “Me too.”
Oh, Jungwoo could sing for hours.
The joy is shortlived.
Jaehyun is finally sound asleep, head pillowed on his lap, and Jungwoo spends several long moments thumbing gently at the shadows underneath Jaehyun’s eyes. It’s been 2 days since the news hit headlines and Jaehyun’s insomnia has flared up so badly that Jungwoo’s able to count the number of hours of sleep he’s gotten on one hand.
He himself is exhausted, having willingly stayed up to keep Jaehyun company despite the other’s protests. It’s a worthy sacrifice though – he knows just how easy it is to let bad (read: self-deprecating) thoughts run amok in the dead of the night when there’s nothing else to keep your mind occupied.
Back flat against the wall, Jungwoo sighs and brushes Jaehyun’s hair out of his face.
This isn’t exactly how he’d expected things to be after their sort-of mutual confession, but shit happens. Tough times will pass, he thinks, and closes his eyes. He’ll wake up with a sore back, but the discomfort is more than worth it if it means Jaehyun getting a decent night’s sleep.
He stays right by Jaehyun’s side all throughout Punch promotions and he’s delighted to see him slowly return to his usual self as time passes: charming on stage and the sweetest goofball off stage.
One night not long after their last stage, Jungwoo steps into their room after a shower and sees Jaehyun sitting on his bed.
“Oh hi. Thought you were downstairs?”
“I was, then I remembered I needed to do something, so I came back up.”
Jungwoo’s question dies on the tip of his tongue when Jaehyun closes the distance between them and walks him backwards until his back hits the closed door. There’s a hand cupping his jaw and another one against his ear and holy shit, he’s living out a K-drama.
“I needed to thank you. Over the last few weeks, you’ve done so much for me – you made sure I ate, you stayed up just to put me to sleep, and before every single performance you would say the loveliest things.” He inches closer and Jungwoo feels his heart leap into his throat.
Jaehyun leans in, so does he, and then – the door opens and the handle rams itself into the small of Jungwoo’s back.
“Motherfucker,” he groans, pain twinging up his back. Jaehyun pulls him out of the way of further damage and Mark’s head pokes through the opened door.
“Did I hit you? Shit, sorry, I didn’t think you’d be standing right there.”
“There’s something called knocking, Mark,” Jaehyun says mildly, stepping behind Jungwoo to knead at the rapidly blooming bruise. “Did you need something?”
“Sorry! It just slipped my mind. But yeah, Johnny wants you downstairs? Something about how it’s not gonna wait for you? No idea what he means, but I’m sure you do. And I’m here to get Woo, we’re about to make some ramyun.”
Still dazed from both the pain and the almost-kiss, Jungwoo has to take an extra few seconds to process Mark’s words. Wait, did he say ramyun? Huh, that’s a good consolation prize.
“Okay, be there in a second,” Jungwoo says, and Mark goes bouncing back towards the kitchen, but not without shutting the door behind him. He catches Jaehyun’s gaze and they can’t help but laugh.
Of course something like this would happen just as they’re about to have their first kiss.
Taeil gets up to turn off the camera, and the second they’re no longer live, Mark snatches up the rest of the watermelon and pulls his knees up to his chest.
“Horror movie tonight?” He asks through a mouthful of fruit, laughing when Jungwoo immediately vetoes his idea. “C’mon, why not? You can hide behind Jaehyun the whole time, I’m sure he won’t mind.” Ever since they'd told their members of their relationship, everyone has attempted to slip in a teasing remark or two. But instead of being shy or embarrassed, Jungwoo's been enjoying the teasing.
Next to him, Jaehyun shrugs and curls a warm hand around his thigh. “Yeah, I won’t mind.” It seems like Jaehyun isn't too bothered by it either.
They clean up together, putting things away and wiping down the table, and Yuta refuses to let their auntie help with the dishes when they bring the entire stack into the kitchen. Instead, he drags Jungwoo over and slaps a pair of rubber gloves into his hands.
“I scrub, you rinse.”
Jungwoo’s rinsing off the first plate when he asks, “You want to say something, don’t you?”
Not missing a beat, Yuta hands him a soapy bowl and grins. “Damn right I do. I have an observation that I wanted to report – not sure if you noticed, but Jaehyun was smiling and laughing throughout that entire VLIVE and it was really nice to see.” He pauses to scrub at a stubborn stain and Jungwoo holds out a hand for the dish. “So yeah, I wanted to tell you that I’m really happy for you both.”
Jungwoo knocks their shoulders together. “Thanks. I’m happy he’s happy.”
“Took you guys a while, but better late than never.”
They wash a few more dishes, then Jungwoo looks over at his friend. “So how much did you have to pay Mark?”
Yuta flicks a handful of soapy water at him.
Later, when chores are done and everyone is off doing their own thing, Jungwoo heads into his room and finds Jaehyun sprawled out on his bed.
“Hey, why’d you invade my bed?” He feels eyes on him as he walks over to the record player and selects a random record to set onto the platter. Soft music fills the room and he tugs the blinds shut, cutting off direct sunlight pouring into the room.
Today is turning out to be a lazy day, so why not spend it in a lazy atmosphere? They have nothing else scheduled for the day and Jungwoo plans to spend the time doing absolutely nothing productive.
Jaehyun scoots closer to the wall and pats the space next to him.
“Let’s watch something. There’s a whole bunch of new films on Netflix and some look promising.”
That’s when Jungwoo notices the projector set up on the shelf, ready to go. “No horror,” he warns, “I know Mark is gonna insist on horror tonight and one a day is more than enough.”
Jaehyun holds out his hand for a pinky promise and they shake on it.
He climbs into bed and accidentally kicks Jaehyun in the shin – the other doesn’t even bat an eye. Too busy fluffing up his pillows and getting comfy, Jungwoo doesn’t notice the look at Jaehyun is levelling on him until he feels a touch under his jaw.
Looking up at him like this, Jungwoo thinks he can count Jaehyun’s lashes.
Fingers skate up his cheek, over to his temple, then back down to the point of his chin. Jungwoo lies there and lets Jaehyun touch to his heart’s desire, eyes fixed on the man’s face. When a thumb settles on his bottom lip, he kisses the fingertip and smiles when Jaehyun flushes.
“Was that not what you wanted?”
“Well – I mean, yes, but –”
Jungwoo’s heart feels so full. He grabs a fistful of Jaehyun’s shirt and guides him down, the other hand burying itself in his hair, a little dry with all the bleach but thick and smooth all the same.
Their lips touch for the briefest of moments before Jungwoo tugs on Jaehyun’s shirt again, more insistent this time. Jaehyun loses his balance and they nearly end up with bloody noses, but he catches his weight just in time and Jungwoo laughs against his mouth.
“Ah, sorry, I think I bit your lip by accident? Here, let me kiss it better.”
And he does, inwardly marvelling at how easily their lips fit together, at how Jaehyun tastes faintly of watermelon, at Jaehyun’s natural scent currently flooding his senses. Time seems to stop and speed by all at once, and when they part for air, Jungwoo immediately leans up in search of that mouth.
“My arms are about to give out,” Jaehyun informs him apologetically, pupils blown and lips cherry red. He smiles at Jungwoo’s frown and leans down to give him one more kiss to the spot between his brows. Then he moves back, taking a few seconds to select a random movie and connecting his phone to the projector.
It’s not easy to cuddle when you’re both grown men and six feet tall. But they make do somehow, an arm around a lithe waist and legs all tangled up, and Jungwoo spends the introduction of the movie absently playing with Jaehyun’s fingers.
At some point, Jaehyun falls asleep, breaths even against the back of Jungwoo’s neck.
If Jungwoo focuses, he can hear the faint sounds of Mark shrieking and Yuta laughing outside, probably at something that Johnny’s said or done. The movie continues playing and Jungwoo lies there, warm and comfortable under the covers as he listens to the odd mix of noises, their joined hands resting over his navel.
This is contentment, he thinks, happiness at its finest, surrounded by the man he adores and friends he treasures. A part of him isn’t quite sure what he’s done to deserve it, but he’s learned to not question what life gives him. Jungwoo tunes back into the movie – he’s missed a whole lot of plot and there is a very strong possibility of him dozing off too, but while he’s awake, he might as well try to make some sense of what’s on the screen.
If he makes it through the movie without falling asleep, maybe he can tell Jaehyun all about it when he wakes up.