it starts, like all things, with a question.
seungcheol trails behind his group members in careful fashion, making sure no one ends up going down the wrong hallway and leads themselves to god knows where, lost in the hallways of the cj e&m building. it's an inevitability that has yet to happen but an inevitability all the same (and with the amount of times they’ve been here, one he wishes wasn’t), so he eyes them all with a necessary precision and lets his feet follow at a controlled pace.
when he makes a turn he sees they’ve come to a snail’s crawl, his members slowing down to exchange bows and greetings with a large group of boys in white stage outfits. he follows along politely, bowing and exchanging hellos to what he counts is a total of ten times, before managing to escape into the hallway that his members did. before he turns the corner, he looks back and sees the group disappear into the hallway he just came from, and it is only then that he realises he doesn’t know who they are.
he rushes after the rest of his group, managing to catch up to soonyoung and mingyu at the tail end of the line. he bumps shoulders with them to catch their attention. “who was that?” he whispers, careful not to raise any heads. it would be disrespectful of the leader of a rookie group to not know his fellow idol groups’ identities, and he doesn’t want wandering eyes and ears to know anymore than the usual.
mingyu shrugs. “one of them looked like baekhyun. i thought it was exo,” he says, receiving a slap on the back from seungcheol. "i know exo, you idiot."
“up10tion. new group.” soonyoung says, piping up from his side. “top media, i think.”
“that’s an awful name,” seungcheol replies, trying to wrap the letters around his head. understanding it in english is even more ridiculous. who comes up with this kind of stuff?
“it’s not like thirteen members plus three units plus one team equals seventeen is any better,” soonyoung retorts with his tongue out. “anyway that’s all i know. they just debuted.”
“thanks.” seungcheol finishes their conversation with a nod, curiosity sated. he should probably offer their leader some support greeting and maybe monitor their stage. they could be good competition, or better yet, good friends. he slows down his steps and separates himself from the middle of soonyoung and mingyu. “you guys go on ahead,” he says, steps falling backward. “i’ve got something i need to do.”
soonyoung rolls his eyes, already aware of what he has planned. “you want back-up?”
“nah,” seungcheol says with a laugh. “i think i’ve got this one.” his feet jump and make their way back where they came from, the doors of the hallway passing him by and the buzz of curiosity tingling in his body. he foregoes the elevator for stairs, doing his best to avoid anyone wondering where he might be going alone.
the bass is already thumping by the time he makes it up to the floor for the soundstage, the music blasting from the speakers and washing the area with rippling vibration. he sneaks past the cameramen already on the lookout for a new victim to interview and positions himself right next to the stage behind a set-up of lights and sound equipment, away from the crowd’s line of sight but also close enough that he can watch the newbies do their thing in full view.
they are, as expected, a little bit of a mess but not entirely amateurs. they’ve got skills and presence, the song is decent, and their choreography is sharp, if a tad dramatic, so overall he’s impressed, especially by their main vocals who blend well despite their drastically different tones. he makes a mental note to talk to jihoon about giving jeonghan and joshua more lead parts.
when their rehearsal finishes, they step down one by one with such an excited look on their face it almost makes seungcheol’s heart swell. this was just him and his members a few months back. it’s almost terrifying to think they’re making their comeback after wanting debut for so long, how this is really their life now.
a voice shakes him out of his thoughts. “hello, sunbaenim.”
he finds the source of the voice staring right at him, a slightly smaller boy with blonde hair who was ordering a few of the others around on stage earlier. seungcheol quickly steps into his view and bows on reflex. “hello i—”
“jinhoo. i’m up10tion’s leader,” the other boy—jinhoo—says abruptly. he’s very direct, and it’s mildly unsettling.
“s.coups. seventeen’s leader, but you already know that, i guess,” seungcheol replies. “i came to congratulate you on your debut. you did great up there. awkward, but great.”
the other boy’s face is stern. “thank you, sunbaenim. i look forward to promoting together. please excuse me,” he says, and with that he bows and goes on his way, leaving seungcheol to stare dumbfounded at his quick exit.
“i don’t think he likes me very much,” seungcheol says to no one in particular one day, landing himself on one of the couches backstage at inkigayo and wiping the sweat off his forehead with a towel. jeonghan quickly perks up from his spot at the opposite end of the cushions. “who doesn’t?”
“up10tion’s leader,” seungcheol replies, and it’s not like he says this kind of thing for no reason. he has several reasons. they’re already at their third week of promotions for “mansae”, and by effect, up10tion’s third week as well, so naturally they’ve crossed paths several times over the course of this period. yet every time they do cross paths, seungcheol finds that the other boy—jinhoo—can barely give him anything more than a polite bow and a hello. he assumed that it had something to do with awkwardness at first, since he refused to drop the formalities even though he was older (by a few days, seungcheol checked his profile to confirm), but every time he uses the term seungcheol can’t help but hear a slight disdain in his tone of speaking. just earlier they passed each other in the hallway while seungcheol was on his way to the bathroom and he didn’t even spare him a second glance.
he pours all of his frustrations onto jeonghan who only proceeds to chuckle at him. “isn’t this the group you were spying on? the one whose leader approached you?” he asks, and seungcheol nods, not following his train of thought and slightly offended he would laugh at such a serious matter.
jeonghan smirks. “he probably thinks you see them as competition,” he says getting up off the couch and grabbing minghao’s hands. "what with your spying and all." he stands in front of the younger boy and cleans up the tangled knot of his necktie, laughing at the mess he’s made of it. “and if he’s anything like you, he’s just being protective of his kids.”
seungcheol furrows his brows, grabbing the pillow beside him and crushing it in his arms as stress release. “i’m not that intimidating, right?”
jeonghan finishes up and sends minghao off his way. he turns around and gives seungcheol a smile. “you aren’t exactly approachable at first glance, but don’t worry, you’re not.”
seungcheol pouts. “then why doesn’t he like me?”
jeonghan grabs the pillow off the couch and smacks him with it. seungcheol jumps in reflex. “hey!”
“you’re hopeless,” jeonghan remarks, continuing to smack him and with no end in sight. “just go apologise. it’ll work, i promise.”
seungcheol jumps up and slaps the pillow away. “okay! okay!” he squeals, arms up to shield himself. “i will.”
it takes him a few minutes of wandering to find up10tion’s room, and a few seconds of awkwardly jumping around questions as to why he was there and looking for them to find out they’re already on stage doing their pre-recording. he bows and thanks their stylist-noona and goes on his way to the soundstage.
standing at the side of the set watching up10tion perform suddenly feels too familiar to seungcheol, who looks down for half the performance to avoid meeting eyes and causing any more conflict with jinhoo before he’s even given seungcheol a chance to apologize. when the music dies down and the producer calls their pre-recording good, they make it down the platform and on their way backstage.
“hello,” he calls out, when jinhoo finally reaches the end of the stairs. normally he would loosen up and skip the formalities, but given the situation he decides this needs to be handled with some respect. “jinhoo-ssi.”
when jinhoo takes notice of his presence, seungcheol bows. “i’m sorry to interrupt, i just wanted to ask a question.” the other boy appears confused, but nods to signal him to continue.
“have i offended you?” jinhoo looks at him with wide eyes. seungcheol knows he’s being too crass, that he should have eased into it, but he’s hoping jinhoo will understand what he’s attempting to do here. “in any way?”
jinhoo looks away for a moment, and then he looks back. “i’m sorry, sunbaenim. i was probably overreacti—“ but seungcheol stops him. “no,” he says. “you had every right to think that way.” he offers the boy a simple smile. “you were protecting your members. i would have done the same thing, jinhoo-ssi.”
jinhoo returns the smile with his own, and a bow. “jinhoo, sunbaenim.”
“seungcheol then,” he says, offering his hand. “start over?”
the other boy stares at his hand and contemplates, for a second, and then takes it. “that sounds great.”