Geonhak is 18, when he wakes up in an unfamiliar dorm room, contorted awkwardly on an uncomfortable mattress, drool crusted in the corner of his mouth. He breathes in, smells sweat and unwashed sheets, and a cologne that’s rapidly becoming familiar.
There’s not a lot of light in the room when he opens his eyes. His phone alarm is going off in the pile of clothes adjacent to the bed. He can tell without looking that he’d only slept a few hours. It’s too little. It’s always too little these days, not enough hours in a day for the things he wants to do.
His muscles are sore, but he’d still planned to go to the gym today. He’s trying to make it more of a habit. It’s exhausting but the stamina helps him through the vocal lessons. And he just feels good after a workout. It’s not a competition. He doesn’t have to score points or worry about looking handsome and diligent and poised. He can sweat and grunt, and he doesn’t have to pretend that it isn’t hard and that, somehow, feels freeing.
Over by the desk, Youngjo is slumped in his chair, sleeping on the desk in a pile of paper, the DAW open on his computer casting blue light across his face. Last night, he showed Geonhak some beats he’d been working on, and then they wrote a bunch of nonsensical lyrics.
Geonhak is 18, and last night was the first time he’d really believed that music was something he could do. Last night, Youngjo had looked at his lyrics, and listened to his rap, and told him it was good. No one had told Geonhak he was good for what feels like a very long time. Listening to Youngjo talk about his dreams makes him feel like his own dreams aren’t as unreachable. Because Youngjo is older, and he’s kind, and he’s beautiful, and he’s maybe the coolest person that Geonhak has met in a really long time, and he thinks Geonhak is worth spending time with alone.
Something is growing in his chest, and it feels suspiciously like hope. It could also be hunger because he’s a growing boy. He reaches over and pokes Youngjo awake.
Geonhak is 20, and his dreams are dust.
He’s standing in the hallway in YG’s company building and everything he owns is in a gym bag at his feet. In front of him, Youngjo’s face is calm and placid. Some of the other boys cried, but not Youngjo, who’s still so kind, and so cool. Geonhak feels like a wild thing in his shadow, his chest cavity a graveyard of broken promises, the splinters digging into the tender flesh of his heart.
Youngjo sighs, softly. “I’ll see you,” he says, firmly, but he doesn’t say ‘soon’, because he probably knows that Geonhak doesn’t want to hear it. That he doesn’t want to see him, or the sterile modern hallways of the company building, ever again.
All Geonhak has in him is a nod, because if he opens his mouth, he doesn’t know what will come out and there are some bridges that he isn’t quite ready to burn yet.
Geonhak is 20, and he turns his back on one of his best friends and walks out into obscurity.
Geonhak is 21, and he gets a phone call.
Geonhak is 21, and he’s singing, rapping, and dancing and all three of those are things he’d promised himself he would never do again. He does it because Youngjo called him, and he sounded hopeful, and Geonhak doesn’t trust a lot of people, but he still trusts Youngjo.
RBW’s CEO looks him in the eyes and tells him things he might allow himself to believe in one day.
Outside the door to the training room, Youngjo is standing, face sickly green and twice as nervous as Geonhak has ever been for anything in his life.
“So?” he asks.
“I start tomorrow,” Geonhak says, and the answering smile is a sunrise.
“Let me introduce you to the boys,” Youngjo says.
There’s Hwanwoong, and he’s a whole palm shorter but he moves like water. When Geonhak watches his reflection in the mirror, a bunch of lesions about facial expressions and performance he’d never seemed to quite grasp begin to make sense.
Keonhee’s name roughly matches his actual brother, but his personality is the exact opposite, loud and goofy, and big enough to fill the whole room. The first time they meet, he offers Geonhak three different snacks and is visibly frustrated that he doesn’t take any of them.
Seoho is dangerous. He watches Geonhak walk in with a look in his eye that’s half mischief and half challenge. He has Geonhak chasing him around in under half an hour, and laughing more than he’s ever had in one.
And then there’s Dongju. Dongju, whose very existence is a mad scramble to fit all the skills the rest of them have been learning for years into a few too-short months. His wobbly knees and determined expression make something protective rise up in Geonhak's body, ready to strike at anyone who looks at him wrong. Dongju leans into his shoulder, soft and trusting, and it’s enough to make his knees shake under the burden.
And then Dongju bites him and Geonhak finds himself thinking it’s kind of cute, and that’s when he knows he’s fucked.
Geonhak is 21 when he becomes Leedo. He’s still 21 when he debuts. He’s 22 when he meets the moon for the first time, and basks in its pale glow. He doesn’t know that one day it’ll burn brighter than the sun.
Geonhak is 24 when their names get called on Show Champion. He’s been through so many milestones, he’s forgotten to count them all. He walks onstage, half-deaf with disbelief and half-blind because he still refuses to wear glasses, and contact lenses are scary.
Hwanwoong stumbles over his greeting like he hasn’t in years, and his legs are shaking hard enough that Geonhak wonders how they’re holding him up at all. Keonhee’s voice breaks as Dongju pats his back, his smile fond and his eyelashes wet. Seoho covers his face with the prop fan but not before Geonhak catches a glimpse of his eyes, shocked wide and liquid.
Youngjo is crying and Geonhak is reaching out to him before he even registers what’s happening. He’s known Youngjo for five years but it feels like fifty, and he hasn’t ever seen him cry, not even in the aftermath of the volcano eruption that was their first shared dream.
“You’ve done well,” Youngjo says into his neck, and it’s barely a whisper, more of an exhale, but Geonhak has heard him say it in a thousand different practice rooms and he recognizes it by the feeling alone. He presses his hand to the middle of Youngjo’s spine, where all the pain gathers when he’s been working too hard, slouched over a computer screen.
Everyone is teary-eyed and shell-shocked, and somehow the microphone is in Geonhak’s hands and he opens his mouth. Asked later, he won’t be able to tell anyone exactly what he said. It’s enough that by the time the music starts, Seoho has gathered Hwanwoong off the floor, and Keonhee’s wiped all of his snot on Youngjo’s stage outfit.
Everyone presses in for the group hug after.
“Why are you all crying?” Geonhak asks, laughing, as Hwanwoong puts his head under his chin, and on the other side, pokes his fingers into his side, trying to tickle him into laughing harder.
The trophy is cool and smooth in his hands, the surface marred by their fingertips.
Geonhak is 24 when he closes his eyes in his dorm room bed. The bedsheets smell familiar, like Dongju’s favorite laundry detergent and the body lotion they buy in bulk. In an adjacent room, Hwanwoong is asleep with his makeup only halfway off. In the bunk above him, the twins are curled up close together, and he can hear the barest sound of their whispered conversation. Keonhee hasn’t stopped crying since they stepped through the front door, and Seoho found some bullshit article on his phone about how salt water was good for the skin, and then he was crying and laughing at the same time.
The humidifier is on and his phone alarm is set. They’re waking up in a few hours. It’s too little. It always is these days. The day doesn’t have enough hours for all the things they need to do. He won’t be able to go to the gym again tomorrow, but that’s okay, he can go without for a little bit. Maybe he’ll do some pushups if he can get Dongju to sit on his back again.
Geonhak is 24, and something is growing in his chest. He licks his lips and tastes salt, and his first thought is that he must not have washed his face well enough. The first sob catches him so off-guard that he forgets to muffle it.
“I knew you’d be like this,” Seoho says from his bed across the room, sounding choked up, as Youngjo silently climbs up the ladder to Geonhak’s bunk. He curls up against Geonhak’s back, and they’re both too big for the space they’re in, and it’s uncomfortable, but they're both used to pushing through uncomfortable. Geonhak is shaking, and Youngjo’s hands come up to wrap around his middle, and something in his chest that’s been broken for years knits itself back together.
“You’ve done well,” Youngjo whispers. “It’s okay, you’ve done well. You can rest now.”
Geonhak closes his eyes against the tears and hides his face in the blanket. Outside their small room, somewhere out in the clear night sky, the full moon reflects its pale glow across the city.