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Step Up To The Plate

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Jaewon goes in with high hopes and a sickening fear of falling. He can’t help it, that’s how he operates, wearing his fear on the corners of his smile. He spends half an hour in the morning staring listlessly at his reflection in the bathroom, tugging his baseball cap down over his eyes, letting his oversized jacket swallow him as far as it will allow. He practices his camera smile for the thousandth time as lyrics dash through his head.

“Time to go,” his manager sticks her head round the door without knocking.

Jaewon starts, she frowns at him, “c’mon, get in the van”

The ride to Mnet’s studio takes entirely too long and not long enough. Jaewon sits on his hands all the way there to stop them shaking and mutters everything he has prepared for today under his breath like a prayer.

Please, please please please PLEASE let me be what they want me to be. Let them see in me what I want to see in myself.

His manager has no such worries. “You’ll be fine,” she shrugs, “barring serious fuck ups we’ve got you secured till the final twelve. So once you’ve made it that far, then you can start panicking.”

The idea doesn’t instill any great confidence in Jaewon, but he smiles along with her anyway as the car pulls up to the curb. He is suddenly struck by the idea that his for-the-cameras smile is too much, but doesn’t have time to process or recalibrate before the doors are thrown open and an ocean of cameras and curious faces opens up in front of him.

People attribute a certain comfort to Jaewon in public spaces, assuming that as an idol he must be used to rabid fans and unwanted media attention. The truth of the matter is far less glamourous. He was a trainee, then for the briefest of moments he was an idol in the loosest sense of the word, then he went into freefall only to land on his feet, but a trainee once more.

He gets it, it’s the face that fools them. No one with looks like his is supposed to go unnoticed.

“One!” calls an Mnet cameraman

“One!” cries a hapless contestant watching their chances at success dwindle with every famous face that arrives.

“One oppa!” scream long-time fans that he doesn’t have the heart to tell are wasting their time.

His manager is nowhere to be seen. Jaewon follows the lead of an Mnet employee he recognises from last year, up through the crowds to a flimsy little sign up desk where he signs his name on the dotted line. The disapproving tuts that erupt in the line behind him tell him everything he needs to know about privileged treatment, he must not be the first special case to pass their way.

Ignore them, had been Hanbin’s advise on dealing with the dispossessed masses of a hiphop scene that unwittingly spun itself into existence for the sake of idols who will never share their values. Trouble is Hanbin can’t take his own medicine, the kid absorbs negative energy like a sponge.

What Jaewon can do, is accept the things he cannot change. With a big name record label comes an unprecedented level of scrutiny. He doesn’t begrudge anyone their distaste for the system in which he chooses to operate, but no amount of lucky breaks can prepare a person for what it feels like to be on in the inside looking out.

“I hear the new YG girl group’s debuting soon. Been practicing your choreo?” Seo Chulgoo jeers as Jaewon makes his way to his spot in the line.

He nearly says something, snapping back at taunts is as easy a route towards soothing his nerves as any other day. But Jaewon also knows a thing or two about showing weakness, and retaliation without pause for thought is the easiest litmus test of them all.

Jaewon says nothing. He tucks in his chin so the brim of his hat fully masks his face, and fluffs up his jacket to hide his frame.

 

He gets Dok2 as a judge. Of course he does. It’s something of a relief if he’s being honest, the diminutive millionaire might be ostensibly harder to please, but Jaewon has a safety net, and it’s the first time all day someone has managed to speak to him without commenting on how attractive he is.

The trouble with growing up pretty is that you get to know the effect you have on people very quickly. Once you are made fully aware of your genetic disposition towards reducing other people to their basest desires and blunders in your presence, you can either use it to your advantage or try to rise above it.

For all too long, Jaewon took the low road. He has to admit, disarming people with a smile is a gratifying super power to live with. But after a time everything else he did came to feel diminished by the seemingly unstoppable torrent of attention given to the even tone of his skin, the strong line of his jaw, his wide eyes…

Jaewon doesn’t mind one bit that people like him for his face, that doesn’t stop him wanting to be more than that.

The point being, he passes. Perhaps not with flying colours, but Dok2 hands him a chain and moves on, to the irritation of other contestants desperate for their big chance. Jaewon grimaces and turns away, because he knows he can’t help the situation much. He heads through the corridors that make up the inner workings of the preposterously huge stadium in which Show Me The Money has to hold its auditions till he finds another desk, with another form to sign.

Other contestants, already passed, mill around like they don’t know what they’re supposed to be doing. Jaewon has to remind himself that filming anything is always a messy business and Mnet probably doesn’t have the staff to babysit the cameras as well as the talent.

He receives a few respectful nods from some of the bigger names he’s currently sharing air with. G2 and Bizniz acknowledge him duly, Sanchez and Taewoon even offer smiles, but no one comes dashing over to say hello.

Jaewon doesn’t have any friends in this playground. He fishes out his phone and tries to resist the temptation to text Samuel.

“You did alright then?”

Jaewon almost starts when Seo Chulgoo steps into his personal space, that’s another part of not showing weakness. The rapper cuts a more intimidating figure than he remembers, a little gangly but still one of the tallest people in the room.

It’s one thing to have someone shit talking you outside the arena, and quite another to have to deal with them up close and personal. Chulgoo is smart enough to work out that proximity to the closest thing YG Entertainment has to a golden boy in this competition is hardly going to hurt his chances of staying in, and principled enough to eschew any glory that he didn’t bring his own way.

Point being, Jaewon refuses to trust him, “what are you talking to me for?”

“What, I can’t say hi?” Chulgoo replies, voice flat. His expression is unreadable and his eyes bore into Jaewon’s with unprecedented intensity. It’s not like they have to start from nothing, they know each other from last year. Not all that well, but they know each other.
Jaewon does his best not to shrink into himself, “you didn’t seem so keen to chat earlier.”

“That was earlier,” Chulgoo shrugs, “if a little thing like that throws you off, you probably aren’t cut out for the rest of this.”

He speaks in a manner so matter of fact, so completely devoid of malice or taunting, that Jaewon has difficulty lining up the man standing before him with the heckler he had passed in the line. Chulgoo doesn’t play games, or so he had thought.

“You did well.” Jaewon tells him, because he can’t think of anything smart to say to break the tension. He hadn’t even heard Chulgoo’s verse in the main hall, but he doesn’t need to. He’s invariably on fantastic form, and he passed, what more is there to say.

“I always do well.”

“You’re reliable like that.”

“Not entirely,” the ghost of a smirk graces Chulgoo’s face, “you though, I know exactly what to expect from you.”

 

“What do you remember about them from last year?” Jaewon asks, tongue in his cheek, hoping that he doesn’t sound too desperate.

From the other end of the studio, Minho blinks at him, “remember about who from where?”

“The contestants from Show Me The Money! Taewoon, BeWHy, Seo Chulgoo, MyunDO, Jung Sansoo”

“Oh!” a pleased look of comprehension spread over Minho’s face, but is quickly replaced by the furrowed brows of serious consideration, “erm I mean I didn’t even meet MyunDO he’s been a complete non entity for the last few seasons from what I can tell.”

“Yeah well you didn’t see him today,” Jaewon tries not to sound too dejected when he speaks, judging by Minho’s expression he fails.

“Listen, you’ll be fine, the company has your back and-“

“That’s not the point,” Jaewon realises his voice has raised a second too late and takes a deep breath to calm himself down, “I know that I’ve got a safety net to keep me up and trust me, I’m not complaining, but the show’s still free to make me look like an idiot. I wanna be good enough that I don’t need the safety net.”

Minho nods along thoughtfully, then tips back in his chair and stares at the ceiling like he’s thinking on the matter of authenticity very hard indeed.

Jaewon likes that Minho takes his time with things. He’s never particularly quick off the mark, some might even say he was dim-witted, but if he’s given enough time he’ll arrive at just the conclusion he needs to arrive at. He is an unashamed tortoise in a world filled with hares.

“The one vs one round is your first chance to really play tactically. Pick someone easy, don’t try to showboat too much. Keep it clear and simple. Taewoon’s not all that bad but Mnet doesn’t like him, so if you go against him you’ll have a pretty good shot at getting through. Jung Sansoo is an ass, there’s no way they’ll let him into the final sixteen again. BeWHy is…probably gonna win this?”

Minho looks over at Jaewon who nods in reluctant ascension, “right, so don’t go up against him at all if you can help it. You should go ask Hanbin about Cjamm.”

“I’m not trying to beat CJamm or BeWHY, I’m just trying not to make a fool out of myself,” Jaewon shrugs.

Minho grins back at him, “an admirable goal! Best way to manage that is not to go up against Seo Chugoo in the team diss battle, whoever has to be on the other end of him is gonna be licking their wounds for a long time.”

“I have no intention of getting involved with anyone from ADV,” Jaewon says, and shoots Minho a grimace that says it all, “Chulgoo’s weird as well. You remember that silent, expressionless thing he had going on last year? Yeah well that hasn’t changed, only this time round he seems to want to bother me.”

Minho wiggles his eyebrows suggestively. Jaewon makes a face, “not like that! Jesus…”

“You never know!”

“I don’t wanna know.”

“Aww,” Minho reaches forward to ruffle Jaewon’s hair, “well if you need any help staying away from your big bad boyfriend, just ask Gunhee, he’ll help you out.”

“First of all,” Jaewon says from between gritted teeth that do little to mask the fact that he’s smiling despite himself, “he’s not my boyfriend. Second, your cousin couldn’t hurt a fly. Third, I completely forgot to kick your ass for showing up at the auditions but not coming over to say hi.”

“What can I say? Blood is thicker than water.”

 

“Being that handsome is basically cheating,” Simon D announces as Jaewon steps out onstage, alone in front of the judges.

The trouble is, he’s not wrong, and Jaewon feels a complicated mix of guilt and frustration bearing down on him that is only intensified by Zion T’s insistence on droning on and on about the exact qualities that make his face so very appealing.

Part of him thinks he should remind them that he cannot help being pretty, and people cannot help liking a pretty face. That’s not entirely true though, he can’t help his fundamental features, but Jaewon has styling teams and real money and years of careful training teaching him how to show his best angels just so. It’s impossible to take visuals out of the equation for a stage like this without removing the essential element of performance, and so it’s impossible to know how good he really is.

As things stand, he is three passes good, or two and a half, depending on how you think about it. It’s something of a moot point, when regardless of Mad Clown’s approval he would have passed anyway. Dok2 has the good graces to let The Quiett fail him rather than retract his initial approval. They ask him about his nerves and he shows them all his shaking hands.

It’s always easiest to go into these things with your feet of clay held high, that way people know you’re not overcompensating. He gets to progress relatively unscathed.

It’s not till the next day that he finds out Chulgoo only managed two passes.

 

Jaewon doesn’t understand the fascination with America that seems to grip every Korean rapper he encounters. Well, he understands the need to stare longingly across the ocean at the great hiphop motherland, but they all use it as an unattainable benchmark that they must forever flagellate themselves before.

For Jaewon, his greatest rival has always been himself. Sometimes it’s his shaking palms, struggling to hold the mic steady, or a blank mind that refuses to vomit the words he knows he has hidden in the depths of his many layers of clothing. Mostly though, it’s himself from two years ago, six months back, last week, that he seeks to challenge. The fool who thought the rhymes at the front of his notebook were worthy. He will rest in pieces before he rests on his laurels.

All the same, he can’t help but get caught up in the collective awe that sweeps the room when the American contestants step out. There’s a chubby guy smiling like he’s just happy to be there, a guy so handsome he might just distract attention from Jaewon’s face, and an older looking guy who’s face is vaguely familiar.

“Flowsik,” the crowd whispers excitedly. Jaewon knows the name, knows the work. His heart sinks with the thought that their victory has been collectively snatched from them by the apparition of an icon.

Two of them, Flowsik and Killahgramz (the chubby guy) fall in with the top grade rappers, the guys good enough to earn four passes. You don’t get to cross the ocean unless you’re that good. Junoflow (the handsome guy) hangs back to be called with the rest of them with three passes.

Then they name and shame the one pass rappers, then those with two passes. Jaewon feels disproportionately satisfied watching Seo Chulgoo step out under a tier lower than him, that’s progress, if nothing else.

“One!” the host calls, and Jaewon leaves the now empty stage on which he stands. What a relief, to be made an example of. He bows deep and skips into line.

It takes two hours of refilming and reshuffling to get it right. In the final broadcast, Mnet show them splitting off into their tiers before the Americans even arrive. Jaewon’s disappointed, they miss so much of the excitement. The only benefit of doing things this way round is to watch Superbee trail in after them, unexpected and enthralled by the stir he causes. Spectacle, of course, is always the bottom line in these situations.

Once the television audience have gotten the gasps and laughs that Mnet is so sure they deserve, the real work begins. They have to cypher, as a tier. Everyone stepping forward to take the mic and say their piece.

There are jeers through the crowd, people snapping at Seo Chulgoo not to drop the mic this time. They are said with the same impunity that he had graced Jaewon with waiting to shuffle into the stadium and be judged for the first time this year, but they are like water off a ducks back.

Words don’t stick to Seo Chulgoo, so he forgets that other people are less well prepared for the coming storm. He dolls out sentences that bite and clauses that sting, because he doesn’t think it matters. Maybe Jaewon is too sensitive.

It’s with not inconsiderable discomfort that the bottom tier rappers file out to the stage, ready to put themselves to shame. The pressure helps some of them for sure, but it holds others back. Jaewon winces internally at a lot of their material, though he’s sure a lot of people agree with the kid who says he wants to fight Superbee.

When they’re done, Jaewon realises that there are no more women left to perform that day. It feels like the sort of thing someone should kick up a fuss about, and so no one says anything.

The second tier do better, obviously, though it helps their cause that they are buoyed along by a performance designed to look out of place in a lower ranking group, by Seo Chulgoo. He does most of it in English, and Jaewon can only assume he makes sense to the Americans littering the studio as they nod along enthusiastically with the rest of them.

Jaewon doesn’t understand jack shit. He gets regular English lessons at YG but they never seem to do him much good. Jiwon says that the stuff they teach them in class is too formal, which would explain why it’s such a challenge to filter through the seemingly never ending slang that peppers the lyrics of American hiphop. Not that that’s a bad thing, just frustrating from his side of the line.

The more rappers step up to the mic, the worse they get, or maybe that’s just Jaewon’s nerves. He has stuff prepared, Mnet always make sure to give them warning when they need to prepare a little extra in the way of lyrics but that doesn’t make it any less stressful to perform and make it look spontaneous. They’re supposed to freestyle, if they can, but he can’t, so he has to trust his tongue to not trip over itself rather than trusting his mind not to go blank.

The second tier finish, everyone claps politely, a few people clap Seo Chulgoo on the back as he falls in with the audience, grinning wide. Jaewon shuffles towards the stage, doing his best to smile, trying to pretend his palms aren’t sweaty.

The Watcher is a pretty good beat to get, he supposes. It’s a classic of schoolboy circles, trying to be cool with their formulaic rhymes and weak wordplay. He knows it, that’s a positive he’s willing to take.

Snacky Chan appears to have the crowd attentive and waiting before he even starts, their adoration feeding his arrogance and justifying the lazy swagger with which he performs. Jaewon will get none of that.

Then Donutman, and Jung Sansoo, the handsome American rapper and a guy with frizzy hair who Jaewon doesn’t know but who knows what to do with the mic in his hands. They all seem so good, so very much above the majority of the rappers from the group before. He feels like he is standing at the foot of a mountain, trying to reach the peak in the space of time it will take for him to be shoved to the front.

At least when the moment hits he vomits words instead of the contents of his stomach, though it’s a pretty close call. He flubs, repeats, flubs, repeats again. Jaewon’s brain is blank and his tongue trips, his hands shaking so profoundly that he dare not keep them still for fear his tremors will be seen.

“Hyeong, do you want to go for a drink?” Jaewon asks as soon as he spies Seo Chulgoo creeping up on him after the cyphers are done. Let him deal with that, see if he can handle fake intimacy.

He can. Of course he can, water off a duck’s back. Chulgoo reaches out to put a seemingly reassuring hand on Jaewon’s shoulder, “why? What’s wrong?”

He’s not supposed to be comforting, but he is. The world seems to shrink, until the chatter of the studio and the memory of words misspoken are background concerns, and suddenly it’s not a game anymore. Jaewon needs emotional support, who is he to turn it down if it comes trotting over and calls his bluff? Some part of Chulgoo’s façade has to be real, he’ll trust it’s the part that’s slightly less of an arsehole.

“I feel like crying. I’m so embarrassed,” Jaewon tells him. More of the truth than he’d meant to spill. He won’t learn till later that as all this happens, the cameras are still rolling.

“Go drink with Reddy hyeong,” Chulgoo says brightly.

Jaewon doesn’t get it, “who?”

“Reddy.”

Chulgoo is wearing the same smile he walked over with, it still looks like a face that Jaewon should be able to trust. But he doesn’t miss the implication, Reddy botched his lyrics too, though he didn’t seem so fussed by it. He has years of clear shots to make up for it.

Right now though, Jaewon refuses to take shame for an answer, “I’m serious. I wanna get hammered. Come out with me after recording’s done.”

“Ok,” Chulgoo’s smile is unchanging. He doesn’t ask why, or point out that the shared contents of all the conversations he and Jaewon have ever had together could be squeezes into the time frame of a kpop music video.

Going out tonight I’ll be back late Jaewon texts his manager as he waits for the cameras to power down so they can all go free

If you’re not in your bed at 7am tomorrow I’m going to skin you she replies. Which is about as close as she ever gets to approving extracurricular activities.

 

Seo Chulgoo drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney, which isn’t to say he can handle alcohol or cigarettes very well. By two in the morning he’s got Jaewon in an affectionate sort of headlock, crooning idol songs in a voice rough with excess smoke as they wander through the streets of Hongdae with the vague intention of heading to NB2.

“I work with AOA y’know,” he mumbles, like it’s nothing, “nice girls.”

Jaewon has had just enough alcohol for the idea of pushing Chulgoo up against a wall and sticking his tongue in his mouth to sound kinda appealing. Kinda. He’s cute in an empty sort of way, blank slate, waiting for your imagination to fill it. But he’s still in possession of enough of his senses to know no good can come of drunken make out sessions with someone he doesn’t like that much when sober.

So instead he indulges the obvious lead, “you ever…do stuff with them?” Jaewon asks.

“Nah. S’a working relationship. Everyone always asks me that. You saying you would hit on someone you were working with like that?”

Jaewon shakes his head, “I don’t like girls like that.”

Normally, people flinch a little when Jaewon is bold enough to mention is sexuality in black and white terms. It is, at bare minimum, a bit of a shock. Chulgoo doesn’t seem to notice anything out of the ordinary though, he continues like it’s normal, and that alone is enough to make him all the more likeable, “see, I like girls, and they’re pretty and all. But they’re just nice? Ya know? I don’t wanna date them.”

“What a responsible straight boy.”

Chulgoo pulls Jaewon in close enough to whisper sloppily in his ear, “I said I like girls. Didn’t say I was straight.”

The drunken parts of Jaewon’s brain that think kissing ostensibly good looking, tall, broad shouldered, steady handed, weirdly charismatic rappers in the dark go into overdrive. He knows he’ll regret every treacherous thought about it come the morning, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an effort to quiet them down, even as Chulgoo relaxes his grip so that they’re no longer pressed against each other.

“I tell you what’s weird,” Chulgoo hums, “there are never any women on Show Me The Money. Or like, there are but they never get anywhere so it doesn’t count.”

“Yeah,” Jaewon nods along but he has nothing to add. It’s an observation, he doesn’t know how to be angry about it.

Chulgoo does, hardening around the edges with alarming rapidity, the thought of injustice freezing his features in stone, “its pretty fucked up. They boot all the female rapper out, put them on Unpretty Rapstar, and make it look like they were shit all along. They’re not shit. Not all the time. There’s gonna be a few female rappers on the scene who can do better than you.”

Jaewon frowns, “what does that mean?”

“You’re coasting,” Chulgoo shrugs, “what do you want me to say? We’re not drinking because you did well today.”

Speaking of drink, Jaewon decides he needs more. They duck into a convenience store for soju, and drink it on the street. Chulgoo hops from topic to topic, offering his opinion so quickly that it’s an effort to keep up with which matter matches which grievance. He has swallowed the world and all its problems, and it determined to spit them back out again one by one.

Jaewon doesn’t pay attention like that. He sits back and listens, trying to osmose as much second hand outrage as can be managed. Come the next morning he won’t remember much past the streetlights glinting off Chulgoo’s teeth as he opened his mouth to deliver one of any number of cutting blows, but at least when his manager comes to get him at seven, he’s safely tucked up in bed.

 

Eventually, the dwindling chances of Jaewon getting a decent placement on Show Me The Money have to go into a nosedive, but wouldn’t it be nice if the honeymoon lasted forever?

Jaewon can feel the rest of the competition slipping away from him with the words. With his credibility. With his good standing at YG. For a moment he steps back, resigned to watch Lee Gyuhwan take the stage and wipe him off it. That would be the easy way out, that would be the honourable thing to do.

Show Me The Money is easy enough on him without him doing the work for it. The image of his manager, reminding him that it doesn’t matter how well he does, he’ll be fine either way.

“Barring serious fuck ups,” she had qualified brightly, just that morning. Jaewon knows that she’s just doing her job, just trying to be kind, but he wishes she’d shut up.

He goes again, cutting across Lee Gyuhwan before he’s had time to say his piece. Right now, it matters more to Jaewon that he is heard and not seen, and even once the cameras are off and his opponent slumps off in defeat, the sting of regret that he’s sure should follow never comes.

If he was Lee Gyuhwan, Jaewon would be furious, as would half the viewership. That’s the value of being unheard of, people don’t care when big names cross boundaries with you.

The judges barely bring it up, “why did you do that?” is about the most they can manage.

“I would have regretted it if I hadn’t,” Jaewon answers. That’s the truth, but it was supposed to be a choice between regret then or regret later. Lee Gyuhwan accepts his defeat with good graces, and the only thing Jaewon feels is relief that despite his brush with serious fuck ups, he’s still standing.

“That was cold,” Chulgoo tells him as they pass on Jaewon’s way back to the dressing rooms, “and you were still shit.”

“You weren’t so great yourself.”

Chulgoo shrugs, “we’re still here, aren’t we?”

Every broadcast building he’s ever been in has had narrow corridors, Jaewon always assumed that was to make it harder to cameramen to run full tilt with expensive studio property hitched up on their shoulders. But right now there are no cameras around, no one to bear witness to the two of them exchanging scathing pleasantries, and there still doesn’t feel like there’s enough space.

Chulgoo is once again in his personal space, looming large. Jaewon sucks in a breath and does his best to straighten his back. He refuses to be intimidated. He refuses to remember the drunk haze of a memory of a thought of kissing Seo Chulgoo on the streets of Hongdae.

“Good luck finding a team,” Chulgoo mutters. Then he’s gone, marching off to wherever his feet must take him. And all the world opens up around Jaewon.

 

Song Gunhee is like Song Minho on a sugar rush – friendly, filled to bursting with energy, and unable to shut up.

“You did so well in the last round though man,” he says around a mouthful of something sweet and carb filled that probably has no place in an idol dorm, “so fucking good you killed it.”

“Thanks?” Jaewon says, and accepts the hug that Gunhee goes to pull him into, “I mean, I really didn’t do my best, but thanks.”

They’re standing in the middle of the Winner dorm, trying to make small talk as Minho runs around gathering together his crack team of Show Me The Money advisors while Taehyun looks on from his spot on the couch and doesn’t bother to hide the fact that he would rather this meeting took place anywhere other than his home.

“Hey, top form or not you were the bomb. I’m just glad that I didn’t have to go against you or I would be out on my ass by now.” Gunhee grins. Then the door swings open, and in come a troop of people ready to save Jaewon from having to self-deprecate himself any further.

“One-sshi!” Tablo cries, kicking off his shoes and marching over to shake his hand, “long time no see. Nice to meet you Gunhee.”

“Are we speaking formally now?” Jaewon asks, somewhat taken aback.

Tablo winks at him, “of course not, I’m just pulling your leg.”

Following behind Tablo comes Hanbin and Olltii, the former looking tired as ever despite his rigidly straight back and the latter positively buzzing with energy.

“Wassup, good to meet you guys,” Olltii says, exchanging high fives with both Jaewon and Gunhee, “I hear you’re are in need of a little advice.”

“God, yes,” Gunhee breathes, “and can I just say it’s really great to meet you, I’m a big fan.”

“Aww no way,” Olltii’s smile hitches up a little higher.

Hanbin rolls his eyes, “so what do you want to know?”

Jaewon shrugs, “I dunno, whatever you can tell us I guess.”

“I can tell you that Hanbin needs half an hour in the bathroom every morning to make his hair lie flat,” Olltii says very matter of factly. Hanbin tries to poke him in the side but he’s too quick and pulls himself out of the way at the last moment, cackling.

In all seriousness, Jaewon has no idea how talking to people who have done this before is supposed to help. No one in this room has the power to change anyone’s opinion of him on the show, or to convince the producer’s to give him a better chunk of the script. He has to do that for himself or not at all.

Jiwon’s not even here. They have a past winner in their grasp and he’s too busy to put in an appearance.

Gunhee is eager to listen though, and is filled with questions. “How do you stop yourself getting too excited on stage?”

“There’s no such thing as getting too excited when you perform, you’re trying to share your excitement with everyone,” Tablo tells him.

“He has a shouting problem,” Minho informs the room at large to Gunhee’s obvious embarrassment.

Olltii crashes down onto the sofa, at the opposite end from where Taehyun is still giving all of them the stink eye, and drags Hanbin down to join him “Just like this one then,”

Hanbin does not look amused, “I don’t shout that much…”

“Aww babe it’s alright you know I love you no matter how hard you scream.”

This is apparently the final straw for Taehyun, who stands up very quickly and to Olltii’s amusement skulks off muttering about filthy minded rappers.

Minho slides into the newly opened spot on the sofa, Tablo drops to the floor and indicates that Gunhee and Jaewon should join him. “You just gotta give it your all,” he tells them, simply, “the best advice I’ve ever given on Show Me The Money was that the audience are the most important people you can perform to. So don’t let yourself make mistakes in front of them that you wouldn’t make in front of other people.”

“You say that, but even with my company’s support I’ve got my work cut out convincing Mad Clown hyeong to choose me,” Gunhee says glumly.

“Right, but for now Mad Clown is part of your audience. So perform for him now and when the time comes, perform for everyone else.”

“I perform for myself,” Jaewon cuts in before he can think better of it. Olltii shoots him a thumbs up by way of approval.

Tablo fixes Jaewon with an uncomfortably serious stare, “then you better not disappoint yourself.”

 

Two days later, the choosing of the teams is looming large and the lack of any track to prepare for is sending Jaewon stir crazy in the trainee dorms. His manager had carefully cleared his schedule over the course of Show Me The Money filming in order to give him more time to focus on the show, but this gap with nothing to do is now proving to be a problem.

As a result, he spends increasingly long hours draped around the iKON dorm, begging for the boys to entertain him.

“You know, you could go bother Winner for a change,” Junhoe says, coming into the kitchen to find Jaewon eating breakfast with Hanbin for the third day in a row.

Jaewon shakes his head, “no way, Taehyun wants to kill me and Seunghoon usually smells weird. Besides, he’s allowed to stay,” he uses a spoon to point towards Olltii, who’s happily sat next to Hanbin, wolfing down rice like there’s no tomorrow.

Junhoe pulls a face like he’d rather send Olltii packing, but a sharp glare from Hanbin changes his tune, “significant others are allowed, everyone else is just stealing our food.”

“Oh I’m definitely stealing your food,” Olltii beams, rice filling out his cheeks, “but I mean if you wanna give me food stealing privileges just because I give Hanbin the good dick then be my guest.”

“You’re disgusting,” Junhoe hisses, before shuffling over to the counter to start working on a cup of coffee.

“Oi, make me some coffee!” Jiwon crows from somewhere down the corridor.

This is followed by a soft thump, then a loud thump, then Jinhwan swearing loudly, then Jiwon’s feet slapping hard against the wooden floors as he scurries towards the kitchen. “Hey man,” he grins, collapsing into the chair next to Jiwon and pulling him into a one armed hug, “sorry I couldn’t make it to the great pep talk the other day.”

“Don’t sweat it,” Jaewon says, returning the hug as best he can with a bowl of cereal in play, “but maybe you can make it up to me by putting your kid in his place.”

Jiwon spies Junhoe faffing around on the other side of the kitchen and immediately breaks out into giggles, “what’s he done now.”

“He’s trying to claim that in order to be granted eating asylum in this flat, you have to be fucking someone who lives here,” Olltii informs him.

Jiwon shakes his head, “how cruel.”

Junhoe sniffs, “I’m just saying, we’d run out of side dishes a whole lot less if it was just the seven of us eating them.”

“He’s got a point,” Jiwon turns back to Jaewon, “like I feel for you man, but I can’t live without food.”

“You know, all you would have to do to escape this mess would be to start dating one of us,” Hanbin says in his best serious leader voice, but his eyes are twinkling like he expects someone to call his bluff at any moment.

Suppressing a smirk, Jaewon nods along with him, “You’re right. Is Jiwon single?”

“Can you imagine anyone dating him?”

“Good point.”

“I may be single, bur word on the street is you’re not,” Jiwon punctuates the statement with a slurp of the freshly made coffee that Junhoe has just passed him and winds up spluttering around a burnt tongue.

Hanbin’s eyebrows raise, “you’re seeing someone?”

“Not as far as I can remember,” Jaewon spares Jiwon a glance out of the corner of his eye, “that’s a weak excuse dude.”

“Donggap said you left with Seo Chulgoo the other night”

This time it’s Olltii’s turn to splutter, “Chulgoo? You’re fucking around with Chulgoo? Motherfucker didn’t tell me I’m gonna kick his ass.”

Olltii reaches into his pocket to get at his phone, but Hanbin smoothly snatches it out of his hands before any damage can be dealt, “First of all, you’ve never been in a fight you couldn’t lose. And just in case you weren’t listening five seconds ago, Jaewon’s not dating anyone. Jiwon’s just being an ass.”

“I’m not being an ass! That’s seriously what Donggap told me.”

“I can’t believe you’re still on contact with Illionaire,” Jaewon shakes his head in disbelief, “anyway, just to clear this up, I did leave with Seo Chulgoo the other night, but we just went for a drink.”

“Huh,” Olltii sits back in his chair and stares determinedly into the middle distance like this new influx of non-information requires some serious processing. Jaewon’s never seen him so calm, and for all of ten seconds it looks like he might have actually shut up for the time being.

No such luck.

“So how are you finding Chulgoo?” Olltii coos, leaning in as far as he can and grinning wide at Jaewon.

Jaewon flicks through possible answers in his mind, trying to pick the one that will lead to the fewest follow up questions. “He’s…fine? Bit weird, doesn’t really know what personal space is, better rapper than me. You know how it is.”

“Doesn’t know what personal space is, eh?”

Jaewon curses internally, that was definitely not what he’d meant to say. He doesn’t react though, except to inform Olltii that he was just referring to Chulgoo’s habit of appearing out of nowhere to loom over him. He doesn’t mention how small the corridor had felt the last time they met, or the thrill that had run down his spine with whispered implications of queerness.

“Maybe he does like you after all,” Olltii laughs, “c’mon, gimme your phone and I’ll give you his number.”

“I’m never gonna call him,” Jaewon whines, but he passes his phone over all the same. If there’s one thing he’s learned about Olltii, it’s that it’s easier to go along with his ideas and get them out of the way than spend all day arguing about them.

Olltii snatches his phone back from Hanbin and starts frantically clicking around between the two. Next to him, Jiwon decides that the coffee has cooled enough and chugs the whole lot in one go.

“There you go,” Olltii slides Jaewon’s phone back to him with a worryingly straight face.

Jaewon groans, “what did you do?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

With a sinking stomach, Jaewon opens up Kakao and sees that a new chat has been opened with a Seo Chulgoo. There is only one message in there. From him, reading hey there babycakes, this is one from smtm. Hmu sometime bigboy xoxoxox

“What the fuck?” Jaewon snaps. Olltii’s straight face breaks and he bursts into mighty guffaws.

Quickly, he rattles off a clarification to Chulgoo that wasn’t me it was olltii. Sorry

It takes all of ten seconds for him to reply oh yeah that makes sense. He’s a dick sometimes, sorry

And then you with him and hanbin?

Yeah

Lmao hanbin lets him get away with murder

“See, you guys are getting along great,” Jiwon cackles.

“Shut up!” Jaewon snaps, and everyone laughs, “hey listen, just because he’s alright on Kakao doesn’t mean he’s not weird in real life.”

Olltii agrees, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Jaewon doesn’t leave for his own dorm until well into the afternoon. By that point his conversation with Chulgoo is pages and pages long, and Olltii has a smug expression that suggests he knows.

 

Sometimes the difference between what Jaewon wants and what Jaewon can have is too much. The procession of people being led out of the shadows offset to stand in front of their chosen door and wait to be judged moves erratically, so that the producers trying to keep track of who goes where have their job cut out for them.

Jaewon tries to be patient, but the foot he sets tapping away the seconds till he is allowed to walk out onto the soundstage and let fortune and scripting have their way with him gives him away.

“That PD looks ready to fight you,” Gunhee hisses in his ear. Jaewon looks over and, sure enough, an Mnet employee in a worn out SMTM2 baseball cap is staring him down.

Gunhee snickers, Jaewon joins in with him, because it’s easier that admitting he’s frustrated.

“You know where you’re headed to?” Jaewon asks.

“Mad Clown and Gil,” Gunhee brings his feet together and salutes in the general direction of his desired team door, “I’m not taking any chances on this one.”

“I thought Mad Clown didn’t like you.”

“He doesn’t, but I’m here on the company ticket, so…”

Jaewon has to pause to think about that. Company influence is everything keeping him afloat right now, and the right company can work wonders for your career. The previous evening, Kush had called him to let him know that if he stood at the YG door today, he would be fine, they would make sure he had a clear run to the final eight.

It would be so easy, and yet, Jaewon doesn’t see himself succumbing to nepotism quite that thoroughly.

“YG haven’t done shit for me,” he mutters.

Gunhee rests a sympathetic hand on his shoulder, “man, Starship have been the fucking worst. But I’m the fool who signed the contract.”

Foolish actions always come back to bite you in the ass, but risk taking can pay off. Jaewon decides to defy the recommendations of his manager and the scriptwriters, and goes to stand in front of Team AOMG’s door. First time round, the doors fly up and they are sitting firmly at the other end of their runway, reluctant to choose him and surprised that he is there at all. Two doors down, Kush stares at the empty space in front of him in bewilderment.

The second time round though, Jaewon finds himself welcomed into his chosen fold with open arms. This time they don’t reshoot.

 

Jaewon stands at the side of the road, with three rappers he barely knows and a full Mnet production team trying to film them in what is supposed to be a candid moment. They stand around awkwardly, trying to find something to talk about.

BewhY is stony faced, here for the stages but untrained in what to do when cameras are pointed at his face for other reasons. He’s not the sort of person that would get much attention from television if he wasn’t a good rapper, his face is too much, bulging teeth and eyes that don’t appeal to the sort of people who croon over how attractive Jaewon is.

Day Day is vaguely familiar from the previous year, and Jaewon only knows G2 as ‘that guy with the blonde dreads’.

“This is ridiculous,” G2 mutters conspiratorially into Jaewon’s ear as Day Day tries to coax BewhY into saying anything at all.

It breaks some of the tension between the two of them, and before long G2 is recounting the tale of how he went from living in Texas to rapping in Korea.

“I didn’t even know Korean people lived in Texas,” Jaewon immediately feels stupid for speaking. Texas is huge, it’s bound to have people from all over the place living there.

Luckily, G2 is nice enough not to be an ass over stupid comments. Whether it’s because he’s naturally more subdued that most other rappers Jaewon has met or because he’s still recovering from the loss of his appendix, he comes across as very calm and down to earth. “Swings grew up in Texas as well. There’s more of us than you would think.”

Jaewon likes him. “Jaewon,” he says, offering out a hand to shake by way of proper introduction.

G2 takes it, his handshake is firm, “Kevin.”

A car pulls up in front of the four of them, and the cameras immediately start whirring. Kevin throws an arm around Jaewon’s shoulders and summons his best grin. Jaewon leans into him, just a little, enjoying the feeling of having someone deciding to be nice to him just because.

Simon D and Gray step out of the car, they say hello then whisk BewhY and Kevin away with them, citing lack of seating space as the reason they can’t take all four of them at once.

Kevin apologises, and waves at Jaewon through the window, but soon enough he’s pulling away.

Day Day falls into the space created by their departed team mates, “fuck.”

Jaewon agrees with him, but he has little else to say. They sit in silence most of the way to their destination. His phone buzzes in his pocket, like somewhere out there, someone knows that he’s in desperate need of distraction.

How’s your day going? It’s Chulgoo

Shit. Yours?

Not great.

It can only get worse. They arrive in Incheon and are immediately confronted by a set of six quad bikes demanding that driving licenses be shown before they can be driven. Jaewon shakes his head and backs away, “I can’t ride then.”

Day Day hangs back with him, the two of them trying to ignore the awkward tension that refuses to stop building as they are left behind with the remaining bikes.

Jaewon pulls out his phone and snaps a selfie of himself next to an unused bike. He sends it to Samuel with the caption someday you’ll be old enough to drive your hyeong around on one of these, to Hanbin with YG would never make us get a license to ride, and to Chulgoo as an afterthought.

That looks like fun. Chulgoo replies

I can’t ride, don’t have a license

*you can’t ride a bike

Jaewon blinks at his phone, trying to work out if Chulgoo is implying what he thinks he is implying. For a moment, he debates asking Day Day if he has an opinion on the matter, but decides that would definitely be too much. This, of all things, is what the winking smiley face is for.

Can you? Is all he can think to say

Can I what?

Ride a bike?

Oh yeah ;)

All of a sudden, Jaewon feels butterflies flooding his intestines. He doesn’t like it.

 

After leaving the two of them twenty minutes to stew in the unfairness of not being able to head out on the bikes, the group swings back for Jaewon and Day Day. Kevin offers to take Jaewon on the back of his bike but gets refused by Simon D and Gray.

“You guys look a million bucks,” Simon D calls, leering as Jaewon pulls himself up to sit behind Gray.

Jaewon bristles internally, but he feels better about it when Gray rolls his eyes and informs him in a hushed tone that Simon D “really likes pretty boys”.

“Must be difficult with you and Jay Park around.”

“You have no idea.”

The bikes are fun, kinda. Jaewon doesn’t feel like he was missing out on all that much standing by back where they started trying not to think about how he should be talking to Day Day. He supposes most of the fun comes from being the one driving. He is forced to perch, leaning back to avoid placing any stray hands at Gray’s waist, because comfortable as that might be it would be weird as hell.

His newly acquired butterflies suggest that if Gray were Chulgoo, he would have free reign to put his hands wherever he liked. Jaewon brushes the thought aside and determinedly tries to think about anything but the way the world seems to shrink when Chulgoo steps into his personal space.

 

“I reckon One will be the first to leave,” Day Day announces over a horribly staged lunch. Jaewon bites his tongue and nods along, convinced that he wouldn’t be saying that if the script hadn’t dictated him.

Still, he doesn’t like it.

“Me too,” Kevin concedes, and then, like he might be trying to soften the blow, “he was the last to join.”

And finally BewhY “Yeah it’ll be One.”

Simon D smirks at Jaewon across the table, “One, I guess it’s you. But don’t worry, you’re handsome. You’ll be fine.”

Jaewon just keeps nodding, just keeps biting, any harder and he’ll taste blood. It’s ok, he tells himself, he hasn’t been on top form so far, it’s only fair that he get some fair criticism. And yet, as he sits there surrounded by naysayers, Kevin looking like he doesn’t want anything to do with this and Simon D looking smug as shit, he can’t help but feel he’s been set up.

“Sorry,” Kevin mumbles sheepishly as they’re bundled into the back of another car and taken to eat at another restaurant, “In the interview I told them that I felt bad about saying it.”

“It’s fine,” Jaewon shrugs, “I could totally do better.”

“Thanks for being cool about it.”

They file into the chosen restaurant and spend the first half hour eating for the cameras, “so we have good framing material,” a producer explains. Jaewon tries to sit back and enjoy it, not least because his manager isn’t on set and so there’s no one to stop him from eating as much as he likes, but glancing between Simon D and Gray, he sees their TV smiles slipping further down their faces and his gut tells him that something is up.

“We’re getting rid of one of you and replacing him with one of the eliminated contestants.” Simon D announces.

For a horrible moment, Jaewon forgets how to breathe. He knows, of course he knows, how could he not? That Show Me The Money has always been a hotbed of terrible decisions and foul play, but he’s gotten so far, and has so much left to show, and in that moment all he can think about is five faces staring back at him, telling him that he could do better.

“I’m gonna throw up,” BewhY whispers. Jaewon nearly snaps at him that he has nothing to worry about.

They all know it’s not fair, but Kevin is the one who speaks up, “we worked hard to be here, swapping us out with someone who got eliminated isn’t fair,” he informs Simon D and Gray, so matter of fact and simple. Jaewon feels a rush of affection towards him, and desperately hopes that he won’t be dragged out of his calm, no nonsense aura just yet.

The judges argue with the producers, when the producers fight back Simon D goes off on a spiel about how it’s not fair that they should eliminate Jaewon. Like it’s already decided, like all the conversations that led them here went on behind his back.

“The replacement is already here,” a producer snaps. And that seems to be the end of it. Simon D and Gray get up and leave, seemingly as annoyed as the rest of them about the position they now find themselves in. Jaewon feels like he should be going with them, there’s no point waiting around to have his humiliation filmed and broadcast across the country.

If there’s no point in seeing you humiliated, what did you even come out here for? A small voice pipes up at the back of his mind. Jaewon’s fingers itch to get to his phone, he’s sure there are people at YG who he could call on to get the decision overturned. That’s what they’re there for after all, no point in signing to a big company if you don’t make them work for you.

And yet…he’s wondering what Seo Chulgoo’s going to say when he hears about this. Jaewon’s wondering if he would leave the show for him, diss the producers, have his back in raging at the powers that be. Is this enough injustice to stir the part of him that drops mics and rants drunkenly about the terrors of the world?

Of course he wouldn’t, that would be ridiculous. It takes all of two seconds for the wishful thinking part of Jaewon’s brain to reach full speed, and by the time he realises he’s being silly he’s already too far gone.

The sound of footfall on the stairs echoes around the restaurant. Jaewon glares at the door and waits for his fate to walk through it his heart in his mouth, hoping that it’s someone good. If he has to be switched out with someone, let it be someone who really deserves it.

The figure that emerges out onto the rudimentary soundstage Mnet have created has a cap pulled low over his eyes and a mask covering his face. Like he doesn’t want to be seen. Jaewon sympathises.

Then the head snaps up, and a familiar pair of eyes are visible under the brim of the cap.
It’s Loco.

First, Jaewon doesn’t understand, then the others start groaning and Simon D and Gray put on matching shit eating grins. A hidden camera, this was all just a trick.

Jaewon laughs in relief, and then at Loco dancing like he just told the best joke of his life. He tries desperately not to feel worthless, or expendable, but the damage is already done. He supposes he can only be grateful that when the waterworks finally do turn on, it’s Day Day crying and not him.

 

Team challenges are harder than working solo. Jaewon remembers this almost as soon as he’s walked through the door to the AOMG studio for the first group rehearsal. Whatever playfulness Simon D might have on camera is vanished and he is a hard task master, demanding new re-writes every time one of them steps forward with a new verse.

“We gotta get recording,” Gray mumbles, sometime after midnight. Jaewon, Kevin, Day Day and BeWHy collectively raise their hands in triumph.

“Just because mummy says you kids gotta go to bed doesn’t mean daddy’s done helping you with your homework,” Simon D growls.

Huddled together as they are on the lone sofa in what has to be the smallest studio AOMG have to offer, Jaewon and Kevin exchange looks. “Did he just call himself daddy?” Jaewon mutters.

Kevin has to visibly bite back a snort, “it sounds so much worse when you put it like that.”

Evidently, Gray has had enough of Simon D’s bullshit to know how to handle himself. He marches over to Jaewon and holds out a hand for his lyrics. He takes a cursory look through them before jerking his head in the direction of the recording booth, indicating that Jaewon should get his ass in there.

“Wow hold up he’s not ready!” Simon D protests.

Gray fixes him with a withering stare, “daddy pays for everything, mummy looks after the kids, remember? And I say it’s bed time.”

“How extraordinarily backwards of you. A woman can be anything she wants.”

“You don’t say.”

Jaewon’s sure that the metaphor has gotten away from the pair of them along with half the night, and scuttles into the recording booth before any more AOMG artists can refer to him as their kid. It’s an easy recording, he’s been staring at more or less the same combination or words for so long that it only takes a handful of takes to get everything Gray needs.

“Nice,” the producer grins when Jaewon’s made it to the end of his third take, “that’s a wrap for you.”

Kevin is up next, they fistbump as they pass.

“I’ll wait for you, we can go for a drink or something when we’re done,” Jaewon suggests more enthusiastically then he feels. It’s late, and he’s tired, but he likes hanging out with Kevin, and if he can stand to go for a drink with Seo Chulgoo he should really make more of an effort to socialise with people whose company he enjoys more consistently.

But Kevin laughs him off. “Man you look tired as hell. Go home and get some sleep, we’ll drink another time.”

When put like that, Jaewon doesn’t need to be told twice. He waves everyone else good night before wrapping himself up tight enough to keep his face hidden from curious passers-by and heads out to the main road to catch a taxi. He should probably feel bad about ditching the others but he knows they’d do the same if they were him. If there’s any more recording to be done, he can be damn sure that Gray will drag him back to the studio post haste.

The orange street lamps cast the shop fronts in an eerie light, and throw the multi coloured splendour of a bar just up the road into sharper contrast. Jaewon tucks in his limbs till he takes up as little space as possible and tries, just for a moment, to be invisible. The summer air of Seoul hangs heavy around him, pulling him into a thick embrace that makes him feel safe, that has always made him feel safe. He can be whatever he wants to be in this city, he can be mighty, or miniature, and right now he feels like both.

A taxi crawls down the street, and as Jaewon’s sticking his hand out to hail it, his phone buzzes.

The taxi pulls over, Jaewon rattles off his dorm address like clockwork, even as he’s pulling out his phone and opening up Kakao to see a familiar face, marred by panda sized eye bags, sitting against the easily recognisable wooden walls of a YG studio.

Kush is trying to kill us reads the text underneath.

Ha. That’s what you get for making it to the final sixteen, Jaewon thinks to himself, but he doesn’t say it. Instead he snaps a selfie of his own, grimaces at his own eye bags (Kevin was right, he does look tired), and opens up the quick photo editing program that YG makes sure all its idols and trainees have access to for what that describe as emergencies.

Showing Seo Chulgoo up in the middle of the night is definitely an emergency.

You’ll survive ^^ off to catch up on my beauty sleep Jaewon sends the selfie, and waits for the ellipses to indicate that Chulgoo is typing back.

You don’t need beauty sleep looking like that

Jaewon grins despite himself, the butterflies in his stomach threatening to start giving him hell. Ridiculous. He doesn’t even like Chulgoo he just…likes Chulgoo like that.

His phone buzzes as Chulgoo messages him again hey you live at YG right? Like in the building? Lemme share your bed.

Doesn’t work like that

Spoil sport

After that the other end of the line goes dead. Jaewon manages to only be a little disappointed when the next message he gets is an emoji filled mess from Kevin, whose finished recording and is also heading home for the night. As he climbs into bed, he stubbornly refuses to wonder how much of this little bunk Chulgoo would occupy, but it’s hard when the butterflies don’t seem to want him to sleep.

 

This time when Jaewon’s making his way through Mnet corridors, trying to find his way to his dressing room to check in with his manager, they are busy, crowded with cameras and management types and even the odd studio executive in amongst the mob. He passes Day Day, who’s on his way outside for a smoke, “we’ve got like an hour and a half before they want us onstage. You got time.”

The first door Jaewon tries leads to an unlit storage room that he’s got to hope isn’t his dressing room, the second sees him met by unfriendly glares from CJamm and BewhY who are deep in hushed discussion. He apologises and backs out quickly, confused and disoriented. He’s sure it was round here somewhere.

“Shit,” he swears under his breath when the third door leads to an empty dressing room that could almost be his if it weren’t for the garish orange of the chairs. His dressing room had been blue. And much closer to the soundstage than this, he’s sure.

“We sharing now?”

Jaewon whips round and finds himself face to chest with Seo Chulgoo, smirking down at him.

The busy corridors feel like nothing. Jaewon tries desperately to think of something clever to say but as the world shrinks around the two of them, so does his vocabulary, and he’s left flapping his mouth like a fish trying to grab hold of some sort of sensible language.

“Fancy seeing you here,” he finally manages to blurt out.

Chulgoo raises an eyebrow into a questioning arch, “this is my dressing room. Move.”

Jaewon steps out of the way for Chulgoo to pass. He suddenly becomes very much aware that the taller rapper is not wearing his usual ensemble of sports gear and jeans, and is instead decked out in a slim fitting black suit that draws what can only be described as unnecessary attention to his long limbs and pinched hips.

And ass. Not that Jaewon’s looking, but he’d have to be blind not to notice.

“Are you coming in?” Chulgoo calls back over his shoulder. Jaewon takes a moment to work out that he’s standing gormless in the doorway, neither in nor out, before stepping firmly inside and letting the door swing shut behind him.

The butterflies in his belly start raging. He takes a deep breath to steady himself and tries to think of a way to complement Chulgoo for looking nice that doesn’t actually sound like he’s complementing Chulgoo for looking nice.

“What’s the suit for?” not quite.

Chulgoo makes a face, “performance, what do you think? I can only assume that’s why you’re dressed as a bottle of Tipp-Ex.”

Jaewon blinks down at his bright white tshirt and jeans, a perfect negative of the outfit he had worn to the first audition. Tipp-Ex. Ha. Funny. “It was Simon D’s idea,” he shrugs.

“Yeah that seems like his style,” Chulgoo agrees, before crumpling onto the sofa.

There’s just enough of a fully trained idol in Jaewon to have him wincing, “you’ll crumple your suit sitting like that.”

“God your worse that the producers,” Chulgoo grumbles, but he shrugs off his jacket and sets it aside all the same.

He can’t think of anything more to say. Jaewon stands awkwardly in the middle of the room, trying not to fiddle with his clothes or pay too much attention to the faint traces of cigarette smoke in the air. He doesn’t smoke anymore, but it’s a habit not easily lost and no sooner has his brain identified the scent than his lungs are itching to be choked.

Idols don’t get to smoke, real rappers do. Perhaps that was the big distinction all along.
Chulgoo nods to the other half of the sofa he’s sitting on, “sit.”

A very large part of Jaewon wants to ignore Chulgoo. He talks in too many imperatives, like he expects the world to follow his will. There would be a certain measure of satisfaction to be had in defying him, though perhaps it’s worth it, to slot himself into the space left by Chulgoo and let the world shrink around them. Their knees forces together by the size of the sofa and their own splayed legs, their eyes locked in what feels to Jaewon like unexpected intensity.

Unexpected, but perhaps not unanticipated. Chulgoo is very intense, and disarmingly physical. His arm snakes out along the back of the sofa like it’s a spring wound too tight to stay coiled to his body, and his hand grazes Jaewon’s shoulder.

Jaewon fights to keep his breathing steady against the raging battery of butterflies against his chest. He thinks back to after the cypher, how casually Chulgoo had slung an arm round him then. That’s just what he’s like as a person, it must be Olltii’s doing.

“You’ve got some pretty fancy toys over at the doll’s house,” Chulgoo says. Jaewon’s expression must betray his confusion, because he lets out a bark of laughter before clarifying that he’s talking about the gear he was working with in the YG studio.

“Oh,” Jaewon immediately feels stupid for not getting it. It only adds to the air Chulgoo gives off of being entirely in control of his surroundings, even when there’s nothing to control, “thanks? I mean I’m used to it so…”

“Yeah? I bet the AOMG studios aren’t all that as far as you’re concerned.”

“Nah,” Jaewon allows himself the beginnings of a smile as he shakes his head. Chulgoo rolls his eyes good naturedly, and adjusts his position so that his hand is placed more firmly on Jaewon’s shoulder, fingers creeping up to the exposed skin at the neck of his tshirt.

Not that Jaewon’s counting, or paying attention, or that he’s searching Chulgoo’s blank face for some trace of intention.

“Y’know I can see why Woosung hangs out with Hanbin.

“I think he gets more out of him than studio time.”

“Yeah?” Chulgoo’s eyebrows wiggle suggestively. Jaewon takes a carefully measured breath, and hopes against hope that he’s not being fucked with.

Different direction, different subject matter. Jaewon hunts around for something, anything to try to push the conversation away from Chulgoo’s unflinching eyes and close proximity and fuck they are close. And it shouldn’t be that big of a deal but against all reason his nerves are screaming for more, trying to find a way to move far enough into Chulgoo’s personal space that there will be no choice but to touch him.

What the fuck.

Jaewon mentally slaps himself and leaps for the one reasonable point of common contact they have, “you’ve known Olltii for a while, right?”

“I don’t wanna talk about Woosung,” and is it Jaewon’s imagination that Chulgoo shifts ever so slightly further along the sofa.

Jaewon has nothing left to say. With a concerted effort, he keeps his breathing steady, and his eyes on Chulgoo’s.

“Y’know I don’t think I’ve ever heard you rap outside of Show Me The Money. No mixtapes, no underground releases or anything. It’s like you popped up out of nowhere like a regular idol trainee,” Chulgoo speaks without judgement inherent in his tone but the implication is there nonetheless. Jaewon internally recoils, this is not a conversation he wants to be having right now.

He shrugs it off as best he can, “So?”

“So, you may not be the best MC I’ve ever heard but you don’t sound like someone who came up as an idol,” Chulgoo shifts and this time Jaewon’s sure he’s moving closer, “so what’s up with that? Where were you?”

“Maybe I’m just naturally that good and the underground will never know what it lost.”

“Possible. But unlikey.”

“I dunno what to tell you man, I was putting stuff out but you know what Hiphopplaya’s like.”

Chulgoo cracks a smile, “I don’t think I had the same experience as you.”

“Well we can’t all be prodigies.”

The smile stays long enough to spread to Chulgoo’s eyes, stretching his mouth into a long clean bow. Like this, with his hair all done up, dressed up nice, the top two buttons of his shirt undone, he looks pretty good. Jaewon is struck by an urge to tell him as much, to say a big fuck you to subtlety. And why shouldn’t he? People tell Jaewon he’s good looking all the time, but he rarely gets to say it back. On the few times he’s dared to tell someone that he likes the way they look off the cuff, they have responded with such shock and confusion that he’s been forced to play it off as a joke. He has to stand there and be ogled, woe betide that he might be looking out as much as people are looking in.

“You look nice.” Jaewon says. And immediately blushes scarlet.

If nothing else, it definitely surprises Chulgoo. First his smile vanishes, his eyes go wide and he sits up very straight. Jaewon can feel the ‘just kidding’ bubbling on the back of his tongue but before he can make it that far, Chulgoo relaxes in a rush, an overly pleased grin sweeping over his face as he chuckles low and moves in closer still.

Jaewon sucks in a breath. Chulgoo’s hand slides up to rest firmly against the back of his neck and their knees are now touching, hands resting limply on thighs so close that the air between them is more of a formality than anything else.

“Look who’s talking,” he mumbles, reaching up to hook a finger under Jaewon’s chin and pull him forward.

As if he needed any convincing. Jaewon leans up as Chulgoo leans down to meet him in the middle.

The first brush of their lips is softer than he’s expecting, testing the waters, making sure that they both want this. When Chulgoo doesn’t pull away Jaewon pushes harder against him, hand coming up to cradle his cheek and mouth searching hungrily for that same fervour.

Chulgoo sucks in breath so sharply that Jaewon feels the air rush from his own lungs. It doesn’t stop either of them. The world feels so small right now, so perfectly, utterly tiny.

The hand at the back of Jaewon’s neck urges him forward even as it searches for purchase in his hair. Jaewon gasps when Chulgoo’s teeth graze his bottom lip and when their mouths find each other again they are open, moving fluid against each other. They melt into the motion like two halves of the same wave, a mess of limbs and bodies and hopelessly out of control butterflies that are only concerned with keeping their own fervent pace. The world fades to a background concern; the only thing that matters is that they keep on kissing, that they keep on moving in time.

It takes a moment or two for the sound of the door swinging open to translate into action in either Jaewon or Chulgoo. They pull away from each other groggily, irritated at being disturbed and desperately hoping that whatever it is will go away quickly and leave them be.

“Sorry,” a familiar voice mumbles from somewhere behind Jaewon. He knows that he knows the owner, but whoever it is sounds small and far away – he puts it down to his own disconnect with his senses.

He turns around to see Kevin standing in the doorway, looking back at him with an expression that he can’t quite place. Sheepishly, Jaewon extracts his hands from Chulgoo’s person and tries to look more like a professional musician than a thirteen year old caught snogging their crush in an empty classroom.

Kevin shakes his head very quickly, like he’s trying to push whatever he just saw out of his memory, “Jaewon, we need you on the soundstage.”

He leaves so quickly, he doesn’t even catch Jaewon’s “ok.”

“We’ll go for a drink after recording,” Chulgoo tells him as Jaewon makes to leave.

Jaewon runs through Mnet corridors as big as anything, a grin light on his lips and his feet sure of their destination. He has a good feeling about this stage, and a better feeling about everything that comes after it.

 

They are ushered between mainstage and waiting room, a producer always on hand to direct them to their mark or cut them off if they come too close to saying something that might prove too good for the editing department to resist.

“We’re your friends, remember?” one of them simpers, having put an end to whatever wild tale Kevin was about to tell of American drug culture.

Kevin rolls his eyes, and backs up the conversation he’s having with BewhY to something more palatable for the cameras.

Jaewon watches from a distance with Day Day, a smile still clinging hopelessly to his face no matter how much tension the script indicates is supposed to be building at this stage of the proceedings. He has the funniest feeling that Kevin is avoiding him, but it’s hard to tell with only half an hour’s evidence to work from. Still, he hasn’t made any attempt to speak to Jaewon in that time, which wouldn’t be weird if they weren’t supposed to be friends.

“Good luck!” Jaewon whispers to him as they are lead up the stage to begin the recording proper.

Kevin flashes him a smile that doesn’t feel entirely sincere, “you too.”

Whatever’s eating him, there’s no time to deal with it now. After hours of waiting, the final plunge happens incredibly quickly. First the four of them are huddled backstage where the cameras can’t see them, then the beat drops and performer’s instinct takes over.

They do well. Jaewon does well. After all too many attempts to show the best of himself, he finally manages it, with the smell of Seo Chulgoo’s last cigarette still clinging treacherously to the back of his tongue. Maybe that’s it, he goes into so many things with shaking hands, an over focus on things going wrong, all he needed was something good enough to take his mind off the bullshit.

If you can call Seo Chulgoo a good thing. He probably isn’t, and the fact that Jaewon feels like he is is no doubt even worse, but he feels like a good thing, and for now that had to be enough.

Kevin bungles one line, Day Day loses snatches of his lyrics, BewhY shows them all up for fools and they’re glad of it. They stand in line onstage and wait to be judged, and for the first time all competition, Jaewon knows he is secure.

“Day Day,” Simon D announces the elimination. They all crowd round to console their now former team mate and try to pretend it wasn’t obvious. Jaewon feels bad for him, really, but he also can’t deny that he’s happy Kevin gets to stay on another round.

“You did good,” BewhY tells all of them like the defacto team leader he is. A director yells cut, and then they scatter.

Perhaps it was just pre-stage nerves that had seen Kevin acting so strangely before they went on, because now he seems perfectly content to follow Jaewon back to the waiting room to be filmed reacting to the rest of the stages, “man I thought I was out for a moment there.”

“Hyeong please, you’re way too good for them to eliminate you because of one botched bar,” Jaewon swings a friendly arm round Kevin’s shoulders, “But speaking of forgotten lyrics, what the hell happened there.”

Kevin shrugs, “I dunno, I looked at you and forgot what I was supposed to be saying. You sucked them straight out of me.”

“Explains why I did so well.”

 

“I thought we were never gonna finish Jesus shitting Christ,” Chulgoo hisses when Jaewon meets him outside the Mnet building that night after what can only be described as far too long spent waiting for the production team to make up their mind about what type of lighting best suited which team.

“At least it’s done now,”

“Done?” through the darkness, Chulgoo’s eyes gleam, “this shit’s just getting started.”

There’s something oddly sanguine about Chulgoo’s whole demeanour. Jaewon knows that before tonight people had been talking him down, but he had performed just fine. And yet, here he stands, seemingly unchanged in temperament, while Jaewon can consider today an unmitigated success.

“Doesn’t it matter to you?” he asks as they crawl into the back of a cab.

Chulgoo flashes him a sidelong glance, “why would it matter? They could kick me off in disgrace and I’d still be the best freestyle rapper in Korea.”

If Jaewon had been sent home in disgrace tonight, he would still be that ex idol who threw his lot in with YG and confined himself to a creative dungeon for the rest of his working life. It’s not much of a comfort.

“Where are you headed?” the driver asks.

Chulgoo checks his phone for the time, “it’s late, you still wanna go get that drink?”

“Where else would we go?”

“Mine.”

He says it so casually, like he does this shit all the time. Jaewon has to catch himself before he says something silly like ‘but your manager’, or ‘don’t you know any discreet hotels’. This right here is the crux of what idoldom has taken from him, what it takes from everybody. He no longer lives in a world where socialising is easy, let alone sex.

So this is the choice Jaewon has – go to a bar with Chulgoo, talk, flirt, get a little tipsy, and when they finally wind up back at his place he can tell himself that he did it because he likes the person he’s with. Or they can skip the pleasantries, he can continue on in the understanding that Chulgoo is kind of an arsehole, and he still gets his dick wet.

“Let’s go back to yours.”

Throwing an arm around Jaewon’s waist, Chulgoo barks a Sinchon address at the driver. He makes it look so easy, like he does this shit all the time.

The butterflies in Jaewon’s stomach decide they don’t like the idea of Chulgoo sleeping around. Because he doesn’t want to share, or he doesn’t want to be cast aside, or it’s just plain weird to think that people can have as much sex as they like without anyone breathing down their neck.

Jaewon’s phone chimes with the ringtone he saves for his manager, for a moment he debates not picking up but the resulting shitstorm it would produce come morning sounds like too much of a headache even from this distance.

“I’ll be out tonight, don’t worry about it. I’ll make my own way to Mnet tomorrow.” Jaewon hangs up in a rush.

Chulgoo snickers, “is that your babysitter?”

“More or less. She’s also my personal assistant, admin person, agent and she speaks to Yang Hyunsuk so I don’t have to.”

“Damn,” Chulgoo sounds impressed, “a regular superhero.”

Jaewon doesn’t say anything, he’d never thought about it like that. The company employees who hound him and put him in his place at seemingly every available opportunity rarely register to him as more than a necessary nuisance if he wants to access the money and power that comes with a big name label. Suddenly he doesn’t feel so great about blowing his manager off.

“You know that Mnet makes their producers work like six twelve hour shifts a week, right? And the scriptwriters have to change shit all the time when we mess up, but they don’t get paid any extra for the extra work. Hell I hear they burn through camera crews like twice a month for most shows – which would explain why I haven’t seen that cute girl with the shoudercam from the first week.” Chulgoo speaks like he’s just making smalltalk, like he’s not really saying anything of value. But there’s a tension creeping into his muscles that Jaewon can fully appreciate given that he’s pressed against his side.

“That’s…how do you know that?”

“I talk to people.” Chulgoo says, like it’s obvious.

It is obvious, it’s so fucking obvious. Obvious enough to make Jaewon stop and think.

“You know, you’re nicer than you let on.”

Chulgoo considers that one carefully, tipping his head back like he’s physically letting the idea roll around his brain before he decides to spit it back out, “I’m not that nice. But I give a shit.”

So where does that leave Jaewon? He doesn’t give that much of a shit about anything external to himself, but he’s nice.

It’s easier not to worry about the big things. Jaewon shuffles closer to Chulgoo, places a hand on his thigh. The effect is instantaneous, the two of them relaxing into each other, retreating from the cacophony of the great injustices they have no power to control. Tonight isn’t about any of that, it’s about the little victories.

 

Chulgoo bites down on his pulsepoint and Jaewon groans long and low. “Shit.”

“I wanna make you scream,” Chulgoo breathes into the shell of Jaewon’s ear, the arm around his waist twisting tighter as he makes to stand and pulls them both up from the couch.

“Bedroom?”

“This way.”

They stumble down a corridor smaller than anything Mnet has to offer, trying to work out how to move without taking their hands off each other. Jaewon fumbles at the buttons of Chulgoo’s shirt, seemingly endless in number and infernally tricky to handle when you have your tongue in the wearer’s mouth. His hat and jacket were discarded somewhere around the time they started kissing but his tshirt is irritatingly still on his back.

The final button comes undone as they crash through the door and into Chulgoo’s bedroom. It takes a moment to disentangle the pair of them from the long sleeves, then they collide once again, Chulgoo dragging Jaewon’s shirt over his head then grabbing him by the waist and pulling him in close so that their bare chests are pressed against each other and their heartbeats are close enough to feel like they’re shared.

“Touch my nipples,” Jaewon mumbles against Chulgoo’s mouth.

Chulgoo snakes a hand between them to thumb over his left nipple and Jaewon keens.

“Holy shit you’re sensitive,” Chulgoo leans down momentarily to flick his tongue across each of Jaewon’s nipples, and all of a sudden it’s an effort to stand.

Thrusting forward, Jaewon presses their hips together and feels his dick, already hard, pressing against the line of Chulgoo’s own erection.

He hisses at the contact, standing on tiptoes and hooking an arm around Chulgoo’s neck to kiss him as hard as possible, letting the motion carry him forward far enough to keep moving against him, till they’re moaning quietly against each other’s tongues.

Chulgoo pulls back far enough to extract the hand still playing with Jaewon’s nipple and shove it down his pants instead, “fuck you’re hard.”

“Look who’s talking.”

Grinning, Chulgoo squeezes Jaewon’s dick once, before reaching down to undo his jeans so that their underwear drops to the floor in sync. “Get on the bed,” he breathes, before disposing of the rest of his own clothes.

And then they’re naked. Jaewon’s not sure quite what he was expecting to be under Chulgoo’s flashy suit or carefully sports jackets, but he seems more spindly, less intimidating without them. He’s skinny and his overlong limbs only go to emphasise this, meanwhile Jaewon’s been spending enough time in the YG gym to know that he’s toned enough to plead easy on the eye even if he is a little on the thin size.

He crawls back on the bed and Chulgoo follows him, reaching down to press their lips together once again and to wrap a hand around both their dicks at once. The world feels no bigger than this bed to Jaewon, his eyes rolling back into his head as he tries to stifle a groan. His hips rock forwards, the smooth slide of their dicks together scattering electrical signals across his brain in the most divine version of chaos.

“Don’t be shy, I wanna hear you,” Chulgoo murmurs. Then lowers his head to suck hard on each of Jaewon’s nipples in turn.

This time Jaewon doesn’t stifle himself. He never learned that crucial idol talent of staying quiet during sex, and can’t shake the paranoia that someone might come bursting into the room and demand to know what’s going on, but it feels so good to finally let go.

Chulgoo reaches forward to turn on the bedside lamp and retrieve a bottle of lube and a condom. From this angle, Jaewon can appreciate how his hair, so carefully styled earlier that night, has been pushed into a delightfully messy crow’s nest, held in place by residual wax. The light glides off his skin, clear and smooth, creating a perfect contrast between with the dark of his eyes.

Chulgoo catches him looking, “what?”

“You look good enough to eat.”

The beginnings of Chulgoo’s answering smile look sheepish and self-conscious. He catches himself in time to push the bottle of lube into Jaewon’s hands, “maybe next time. Swap places? I wanna see you ride me.”

Jaewon doesn’t need to argue any kind of case for that. He moves aside quickly, letting Chulgoo lie down before straddling his legs. He pops the cap and squeezes the bottle too hard, winding up with a palmful of lube too large to be useful. Fuck it, he can let that shit drip down his thighs, it’s easy enough to take as much as he can lift on two fingers, then slide them down between his ass cheeks till he reaches his hole.

The lube is cold, lube is always cold. Jaewon twitches, partially in discomfort and partially from the shock of touching sensitive nerve endings. He slides one finger in first as a cursory test of the waters, quickly adding a second and letting himself rock back on them, slowly but surely penetrating deep enough to stretch himself out properly.

Chulgoo rips open the condom packet and rolls it down his dick. He motions towards the bottle of lube, but Jaewon has enough presence of mind to reach forward and jerk him with his still lube covered free hand.

“Oh yeah, just like that,” Chulgoo hums, his eyes falling closed as he relaxes into Jaewon’s rhythm, “let me know when you’re ready.”

Jaewon’s ready. With one final push his fingers slide up far enough to brush against his prostate and he can feel his muscles relaxing in a rush, “fuck,” he hisses, as unprepared as ever for the wave of pleasure that washes over him as he makes contact with the most sensitive spot in his body.

It takes a moment for Jaewon to reshuffle himself, moving up the bed so that Chulgoo’s dick is pressed against his asshole. He hovers, waiting for some kind of cue. Chulgoo wraps his hands around his hips and pushes him down.

He hadn’t taken the time to consider the finer points of fucking Seo Chulgoo, but from this angle, with his dick slipping up his ass interminably slowly, Jaewon will say this: he feels big.

“Easy, easy,” Chulgoo coos as Jaewon comes to rest in his lap.

Jaewon’s nerves feel like they’re collectively on fire, like there’s a magic button up his ass that only a dick can push that makes everything seem that much more intense. Chulgoo’s thumb rubs encouraging circles over his hip and he gasps, his dick twitching of its own accord. He needs to feel more, he needs to move, it’s already too much sitting still.

Having taken a moment to breathe, Jaewon shifts himself forward minutely, feeling the drag of Chulgoo’s dick sliding fractionally out of him. His nerves scream for more and less all at once making it hard to process what he’s supposed to be doing.

“C’mere,” Chulgoo leans forward, bringing one hand up to pull Jaewon towards him, crashing their lips together as the other hand pushes his hips down, reclaiming the space lost.

Jaewon whimpers, but he can take a cue. The next thrust he moves forward further, sits back faster, egged on by the hand at his waist. He does it again, and again, until he’s built up a rhythm, groaning softly in time with the movement of his skin against Chulgoo’s.

Just like that. Chulgoo’s composure begins to break, the hand cupping Jaewon’s face lets go, trailing down to his hip again, helping them move harder and faster against each other. Like this, Chulgoo can meet him in the middle, pushing up into him, directing the angle of their fucking till he finds the spot that makes Jaewon sing.

“Fuck,” Jaewon nearly screams the first time Chulgoo’s dick makes contact with his prostate, “jesus, right fucking...shit.”

Emboldened, Chulgoo increases their pace, grunting low every time his hips snap up. He’s not strong enough to hold Jaewon up from this angle, but he moves like he wants to, fucking up into him with such vigour that if he wasn’t also holding him up, Jaewon’s sure he would lose his balance.

They’re loud together, they’re so fucking loud. The neighbours must hate Chulgoo. Jaewon lets his head fall back, panting desperately for air but not wanting to take the time to breathe. His muscles are beginning to burn, but he knows he won’t stop or slow. Fuck that shit Jiwon talks about ‘a dancers endurance’ during sex, when it’s good enough you keep going regardless.

With one hand, Chulgoo reaches round to grab his ass, pulling the cheeks apart so he push deeper up inside Jaewon. The noise that escapes his lips is primal, the hand still at Jaewon’s waist coming up to push against his back, till they’re lying flush together.

Jaewon buries his head in Chulgoo’s neck to choke his groans. It’s good like this, really good, but it’s not an easy angle. He can’t move very smoothly, and sooner or later its going to prove murder on Chulgoo’s hips.

“C’mere,” Jaewon pushes himself up far enough to get a hand on Chulgoo’s shoulder, the sits back, bringing them both upright together.

It takes a moment to readjust, Chulgoo bringing his legs up to keep himself steady, wrapping his arms firmly around Jaewon’s waist to keep him close. Like this they feel more like a mess of limbs, less separate. When they breathe the sharp rise and fall of their chests feels symbiotic and simultaneous.

Like this, Jaewon has more control. He rolls his hips forward, stuttering out a moan as the press of skin on skin puts friction on his dick where before there was none. He does it again and again, letting his brain befuddle itself in the heat of his body and the electric pleasure that pours unbidden from every nerve. His eyes fall closed and he loses himself in the rhythm, unchanging, steady, resisting the urge to move harder and faster. He wants to make this last, though he’s not sure how much longer he can manage.

Bellow him, Chulgoo’s hips roll into his as best they can but at this angle, he can only do so much. Instead, he uses his arms once again to control their pace, wrapped tight around Jaewon’s waist, raising him up, pulling him back down. If they should threaten to move too fast he slows them, firm and finite. He knows exactly what he wants.

The difference in height allows Chulgoo to pepper Jaewon’s neck with kisses, hunting for sensitive spots. When he finds once, he goes back for more, first teasing the place with his tongue, before sinking his teeth in hard enough to bruise.

Jaewon shudders, one hand twisting into Chulgoo’s hair to hold him close, “fuck.”

“How are you so sensitive? It’s so fucking hot,” Chulgoo grins lazily, like his breath isn’t coming short, like the heat of arousal isn’t burning off his skin. He leans forward momentarily to press his lips to Jaewon’s, before pushing him down firmly, grinding into his lap, “I wanna let go and I want you to ride me till I come, ok?”

“Fuck yes,” Jaewon grins back at him. The arms at his waist lax and loosen, and then fall away entirely.

Jaewon sets his hands on Chulgoo’s shoulders, bears down on his dick one last time, and then lets his hips take over. There is no control now, only the illusion of it, faster and faster, in a collision course of their own making. The scent of sweat is lost below the need to move together, forwards, onwards, towards a conclusion that feels inevitable and unobtainable all at once.

“I’m close, shit...I’m fucking close.” Chulgoo pants.

“Touch me then.”

Chulgoo reaches between them to wrap a hand around Jaewon’s dick. He jerks it sloppily, it is the work of a moment to bring the physical contact needed to push him over the edge into Jaewon’s sites. He arches his back and cries out, trying to keep his hips moving, not to stop. He wants everything, all at once, he wants his senses overwhelmed.

The movement shifts their collective centre of gravity, and with a guttural roar Chulgoo leans forward, still trying to move his hips as best he can. He sticks an arm out to steady itself, and it comes to rest on Jaewon’s foot, sliding slowly towards the covers, thumb trailing a tantalisingly light trail down the spine.

That does it, the final few nerves needed to light up and overpower Jaewon’s sensibilities are awake, and the only word he can think of for the sound that leaves his mouth is ‘far too loud for good neighbourly conduct’. He feels his dick jump in Chulgoo’s hand as he comes, and his muscles stretching and spasming around his partner.

He spurts once, twice, after the third time he’s sure he’s done, but he raises himself up one final time, and when his hips come down he feels Chulgoo shudder beneath him as his eyes roll back into his head as he comes.

They stay sitting, sated and sweaty, breathing heavy into each other’s ears. In the wake of their fucking, the calm is so thorough that Jaewon feels he could drift off right there. Then he remembers that Chulgoo’s softening dick is still up his ass, and they disentangle to lie side by side on top of the duvet, waiting for their racing pulses to slow.

“You came when I touched your foot,” Chulgoo says, reaching over Jaewon to dispose of the used condom and to grab a stack of tissues.

Jaewon scowls at him half-heartedly “So? I was gonna come anyway.”

“Sure you were, I was gonna make sure of it.”

Chulgoo offers the tissues to Jaewon, who takes a handful and starts to try to clean up the mess of lube and semen he’s currently covered in. “Man, I need a shower.”

“Hey now, don’t change the subject. We can shower in the morning.”

“You’re gonna need to wash your sheets if I sleep in them like this.”

“Hmm, you make a compelling case,” Chulgoo hums, shuffling closer to Jaewon and laying a hand on his cheek, “but how about this: if you can wait till tomorrow, I’ll blow you before we leave.”

“Fine by me,” Jaewon replies. He leans in to Chulgoo to kiss him sluggishly, the weight in their muscles slowing them down and holding them steady over the backdrop of fervent desire that had seen them fall into bed together in the first place.

As they kiss, Chulgoo’s hand leaves Jaewon’s face, trailing down his side till it can hook under his leg and hitch it over his hip. Fingers sweep down Jaewon’s calf to his foot, where they trace gentle patterns on the sole.

It’s nice, soothing. Now that they’re no longer caught in the heat of the moment it feels less like sensory overload and more like proper intimacy. Jaewon relaxes into the sensation and feels Chulgoo smile teasingly against his mouth. It’s worth it though, it feels so nice.
“I knew you liked it,” Chulgoo says as he pulls the duvet over the two of them and reaches over to turn out the light.

“What can I say? I like nice things.” Jaewon hums contentedly. Chulgoo throws an arm around him, and the two of them are asleep within minutes.

In the morning, Chulgoo is good to his word. He sucks Jaewon off, on the bed with two fingers up his ass and the other hand rubbing circles into his ankle.

They shower afterwards, together. Jaewon repays the favour with his knees scraping against the hard plastic of the bathroom floor, and leaves the apartment with the taste of Chulgoo’s come on the back of his tongue.

 

“Jesus Christ where have you been?” Jaewon’s manager practically mows down Gray in her haste to reach him, “don’t you ever go running off on me like that again Jung Jaewon, you had me worried sick.”

“Sorry,” Jaewon mumbles. It’s hard to look meek from the makeup chair but he does his best. The disapproving tightness around her lips would indicate that she doesn’t believe he means it and he feels a jolt of guilt more potent than he would have expected in his lower gut. His conversation in the taxi with Chulgoo comes back to him, and the thought occurs that she would be in for a lot worse than a slap on the wrist if anyone found out he’d gone missing.

Her phone rings and she leaves in as much of a hurry as she arrived, “just don’t do it again!”

“What was she so stressed out about?” Kevin asks from the up against the back wall of the makeup room. He stubbornly refuses to appear on camera in anything but his natural state, and Simon D stubbornly refuses to let him sit out on ‘team bonding time’.

“I didn’t go back with her last night, she was worried about me,” Jaewon replies. He cringes internally at the look on Kevin’s face, reflected in the mirror that the cordis won’t let him take his eyes off – a look that speaks of incredulity that an adult would need such stringent micromanagement.

BewhY makes a face, “what does it matter if you didn’t go back with her? You’re allowed to have a life aren’t you?”

“Absolutely not,” Jaewon informs him wryly, “lives are for people who don’t want to spend theirs in front of a camera.”

“Oh please,” Simon D’s voice booms across all of them, “it’s not that bad. Especially when you get to my age. Jaewon’s just going through a rough patch. The real question, is what on earth were you doing sneaking out of the big house last night?” he punctuates his question with tactically wiggled eyebrows and smug smirk that lets the room know he knows exactly what idols get up to when they ditch their management.

Jaewon’s thankful that at that moment, the cordi seeing to his makeup asks him to look up and he can make his eye roll look semi-natural. “What do you think?”

Both BewhY and Kevin look like they’re not really following Simon D’s line of thinking. Gray looks like he’s trying very hard to keep his face neutral but his blank expression only goes to heighten the impression Jaewon gets that he would like to hit his CEO square in the nose.

Simon D shakes his head, “some lucky girl gets to see all the best bits of our One-ie and he doesn’t even give us the heads up.”

The penny drops very quickly for those who still needed prompting. “Sex before marriage is a sin,” BewhY squeaks. Nobody pays him a blind bit of attention.

“I don’t like girls like that,” Jaewon tells Simon D.

“No shit? Well then you should have invited me too.”

“Homosexuality is also a sin,” BewhY hisses. Kevin stands up just to come over and smack him upside the head.

The door opens and a producer holding a clipboard three times the size of her head steps inside, “we need you guys on the soundstage in five.”

After a couple of finishing touches, the makeup cordis let them go. They traipse the now familiar route to the soundstage, Jaewon lingering towards the back, partly so he can stay out of Simon D’s line of site, partly so he doesn’t have to advertise how strangely he’s walking.

Kevin joins him, “man, if butt sex hurts that much why do you do it? You’re limping like a motherfucker”

“Trust me,” Jaewon says through gritted teeth, “it always seems worth it at the time.”

Kevin gives a snort of laughter that doesn’t seem entirely genuine. Once again, Jaewon can’t help but feel that there’s something off about his expression.

“It was Seo Chulgoo, right?” he asks quietly.

“Naturally,” Jaewon grins at him. Kevin’s expression remains unchanged, “what? You don’t approve?”

“Hey man, you can stick your dick wherever you like. I’m just…surprised you chose him.”

“Why? Because he’s on a different team from us?”

“No,” Kevin shakes his head, “he’s just an arsehole.”

Jaewon feels like he should say something. It feels distinctly uncomfortable to be told by a friend that you’ve fucked someone they don’t like, and his instinct to defend Chulgoo is as much born of self-preservation than a need to protect anyone else’s honour. But before he can say anything they make the final right turn to the soundstage, and the lights drown him out.

 

Three days later, Jaewon has finally conceded to staying the night on YG property, much to his manager’s relief. He should probably feel guiltier about how much time he’s spending with Chulgoo’s dick up his ass on her watch, but it’s hard not to come crawling back when the sex is so good.

“I’m completely fucked,” he announces from the floor of the Ikon dorm.

Jinhwan emerges from the kitchen, rattling the swear jar menacingly, “language!”

“I’m sorry, I’ll pay later.”

“You better.”

He will pay, but right now it feels so good to be spread out on his back, staring at the ceiling, just existing.

From the sofa, Hanbin peers down his nose at him, “what did you do?”

“I drew Seo Chulgoo for the diss battle.”

“Incredible,” Hanbin says flatly, “you literally had one job Jaewon. What did we tell you?”

“I know man,” Jaewon groans, “I dunno what to tell you. The judges let them pick the order. We picked the team, they picked the order.”

“Your team got to pick who you were going against and you picked the team with Seo Chulgoo? Does Simon D want to be humiliated on national television?” Hanbin whips out his phone, “I’m telling Woosung.”

It takes Jaewon a moment to reconnect the dots and remember that not only is Olltii (Woosung? He’s not sure they’re on first name terms yet) Hanbin’s boyfriend, he’s also Chulgoo’s best friend, and is likely holding more of the cards than Hanbin at this moment in time. He considers making a fuss about how he doesn’t need to know, but it’s evident that the damage is already done.

Hanbin’s phone buzzes and he squints at the new message, frowning. Then his eyes go wide, “Woosung seems to think you’re also fucking Chulgoo? I thought that was just a bad joke of Minho’s.”

“It was just a bad joke.”

Hanbin throws his hands up, “first of all you pick the worst possible opponent for this challenge, then you go and get yourself emotionally compromised. Honestly hyeong you don’t do yourself any favours.”

“I am not emotionally compromised,” Jaewon whines. The butterflies in his stomach decide now would be a great time to reassert their existence.

Then his phone buzzes. Jaewon fishes it from his pocket sheepishly to find a message from Chulgoo. You sure you’re not coming over tonight?

I can’t. Sorry. My manager would actually kill me this time. Tomorrow though.

I’ll hold you to it! Gonna miss that ass tonight

When Jaewon puts his phone away, Hanbin is glaring at him like a misbehaving trainee. It is kinda scary, he can see why someone might cower.

“If you’re too fucked out to walk over to the kitchen and put a thousand won in the swear jar, you’re emotionally compromised.”

Groaning, Jaewon buries his head in his hands. It’s a sad fact of life that refusing to admit Kim Hanbin is right doesn’t make his wisdom any less profound.

 

From here on out, the performances start in earnest. And so the remaining Show Me The Money contestants are expected to spend a lot more time in the Mnet studios beyond the big day. There are reaction shots and set up and interviews that the producers want wrapped up and ready for the editing department before the stages get started, so much so that the only thing left to do on the final day will be perform.

They get dragged in at odd hours. Jaewon finds himself wandering past random selections of other teams on his way to the solitary Mnet coffee machine sometime after midnight.

“You’re probably going to lose to Seo Chulgoo,” Superbee informs him at one in the morning, “I mean you should totally ream him out for the Snoop Dogg thing but still.”

Stuck in a room with a creaking coffee machine and far too few hours of sleep under his belt, Jaewon doesn’t really know what to say to that. “Err…thanks?”

Superbee snorts, “Wasn’t a compliment.”

Jaewon shuffles back towards his green room for the night. Kevin finished up over an hour ago, BewhY appears to be on a completely different recording schedule to them, and Simon D and Gray are in the building but nowhere to be seen. It’s going to be a long, dull wait for someone to come and get him.

He’s so tired and so used to people marching up and down Mnet corridors, that Jaewon doesn’t give the feet slapping against the linoleum behind him much thought. As such, when a pair of arms pull him into a back hug and a familiar voice whispers “hey babe,” into his ear, he nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Shit!” Jaewon yelps, and promptly spills hot coffee on his hands, “what the fuck, hyeong?”
Chulgoo lets Jaewon go, cackling, “man you’re out of it tonight.”

“Hence the coffee,” Jaewon holds up the now half empty cup, “which, might I add, you just spilled all over me.”

“It’s not my fault you can’t handle your caffeine.”

“Yes it is, and it hurts, so screw you.” Jaewon reaches into his pocket for a tissue to wipe the excess coffee from his fingers.

Chulgoo steps forward, still grinning but with the humour in his eyes hardening into something more concrete. He takes the tissue, and Jaewon’s hand, and starts wiping him down himself, “aww, do you need me to kiss it better.”

Jaewon does his best to keep his expression disapproving, but he’s too tired to play the game of witty banter. Chulgoo takes his hand and presses his lips to the tip of each finger, before sucking his index and middle fingers into his mouth.

“Hyeong,” Jaewon chides him, but his eyelids flutter when he speaks and he knows it doesn’t come out very convincing. He wants to kick himself for turning to putty so easily in Chulgoo’s hands, but it’s so much easier to fall into him.

Chulgoo lets the fingers drop from his mouth slowly, a trail of saliva connecting them to his tongue as Jaewon holds his hand up, hopeful that he might continue.

Taking the coffee stained tissue, Chulgoo wipes the spit from Jaewon’s fingers, then slides a hand behind his head and leans in to kiss him.

They may not have been doing this for long but they have done it enough times that they no longer need to be cautious with each other. Chulgoo sucks Jaewon’s lower lip into his mouth and pushes him up against the wall in what feels like one smooth motion. He arches up against him, so that their hips collide, and his tongue traces the back of Jaewon’s teeth.

“Stop,” Jaewon gasps, “we can’t…here…we could be seen.”

Chulgoo looks both ways down the corridor, “no one’s here.”

Jaewon’s not sure if it’s the butterflies in his belly or his heart jackhammering in his chest that makes it hard to breathe, maybe the tightness in his chest is a necessary by-product of the way the world shrinks in Chulgoo’s presence. All he knows is that what Chulgoo is suggesting sounds dangerous and stupid, and he likes it. Impossible as it is to reconcile the twin compulsions, to run and to stay, at war in his head, he stands and waits for a move to me made for him.

Slowly, deliberately, Chulgoo brings a hand forward to cup Jaewon’s half hard dick through his jeans, “you wanna stop?”

Not wanting to get caught is not the same thing as wanting to stop. In answer, Jaewon cants his hips towards Chulgoo’s waiting palm, wraps arms around his neck to draw him in, kisses him hard and fast.

The possibility that they might be seen looms large and stern at the back of his mind, but it doesn’t turn him off, if anything, the idea that they are in imminent danger of someone turning a corner and becoming witness to the two of them makes Jaewon’s dick jump. Chulgoo doesn’t waste time palming him through his jeans, instead reaching for his fly and pulling his trousers down just far enough for the head of his dick to peak out over his pants.

“We gotta be quick, don’t hold out on me,” Chulgoo says, hand wrapping around the base of Jaewon’s dick and jerking him one, firmly, before letting his thumb trail over the head.

Jaewon whimpers at the touch, a mixture of weariness and arousal making it difficult to think about anything more complex than the hand currently wanking him off. He can definitely manage to come quickly, his dick’s already hard in Chulgoo’s palm, waiting for the friction needed to drive it over the edge.

Chulgoo begins to move in earnest, wrist flicking fast as his fingers trail down Jaewon’s shaft. They’re pressed close, making it harder to be sure of exactly what they’re up to at first glance, and it feels like he’s using up all the air.

Biting his bottom lip to try to keep quiet, Jaewon tries to breathe through his nose. It’s hard though, the world feels so small. He feels so small.

“Shit,” he hisses, as Chulgoo swipes his thumb over the head of his dick once again, “just like that again-yes!”

Jaewon comes with a shudder and a groan loud enough that Chulgoo has to bring up his free hand to cover his mouth as best he can.

“You know I like to hear you make some noise but this really isn’t the time or the place,” Chulgoo laughs.

“Whose fault is it if I’m noisy?”

“I accept full responsibility,” Chulgoo rubs his their noses together, so that their breath mingles and it’s impossible to tell from whom the heat spreading across Jaewon’s cheeks originates. Then he closes the distance and kisses him gently, without teeth or tongue.

Jaewon sighs into the kiss, but his hands are already moving, down from Chulgoo’s neck to find purchase in the belt loops of his jeans. Like this, he can draw their hips together once again, and feel the outline of Chulgoo’s erection against his softening dick.

“I should really pay you back,” Jaewon mutters.

Chulgoo smirks at him, “it’s only fair.”

Jaewon’s fingers ghost over the obvious bulge in the front of Chulgoo’s trousers, gliding up to fiddle with the buttons.

“Don’t go slow with me,” Chulgoo says teasingly, like there isn’t a very real need for speed.

Once he’s gotten Chulgoo’s dick free, Jaewon takes a moment to tuck himself back into his trousers and make sure he’s decent. The he makes a final survey of their surroundings, and drops to his knees.

“What are you-oh,” Chulgoo practically purrs ass Jaewon runs his tongue from the base of his shaft to the tip of his dick, “babe, you know I love it when you suck me off but we probably don’t have time.”

He doesn’t sound entirely convinced, Jaewon can’t blame him. Having to turn down a blowjob always feels wrong on a fundamental level. It’s one of the few ways he gets to watch Chulgoo come undone for him though, and right now, to his weary, post-orgasm brain, it sounds like the best idea in the world.

“I want you in my mouth,” Jaewon smiles up at Chulgoo, “please?”

Chulgoo reaches down to stroke Jaewon’s hair, fingers curling around his ear then skirting forward to rest under his chin, “well, since you asked so nicely, go ahead.”

Jaewon doesn’t need to be told twice. Chulgoo lets go of him and he leans in to wrap his lips around the head of his dick. He swirls his tongue over the slit, and brings a hand up to cup his balls.

Above him, Chulgoo makes a low noise of satisfaction that he quickly stifles with the back of his hand. Jaewon moves his tongue again, just to watch the way his knees shake when he does.
With a long, steadying breath, Chulgoo pulls the hand away from his mouth, “I love it when you work me over, but we don’t have time, you gotta move.”

Jaewon flashes him a brief sulky pout, but he’s right. He takes his hand from Chulgoo’s balls to wrap around his shaft, then slides as much of his dick as possible into his mouth, trying to relax his throat muscles and not think about gagging.

His lips and hand move together, with his free hand clutching tight to Chulgoo’s thigh for balance. Jaewon moves as fast as he can while still maintaining the control he needs to breathe, his tongue flattened against his teeth to reduce the change of accidental scraping.

Once he’s used to the rhythm, Chulgoo’s hips begin to move in time with Jaewon’s mouth, thrusting forward gently to meet him. “Just like that,” he mutters, “fuck yeah, just there. Don’t stop.”

As if Jaewon were going to stop. A few times, Chulgoo’s thrusting sees his dick push past Jaewon’s gag point and slip down his throat, causing a certain measure of spluttering though their pace doesn’t slow.

Most of the time, Jaewon can swallow a dick whole. But he’s tired, and the angle is wrong, and Chulgoo’s quite a mouthful at the best of times. He keeps his mouth wide open, and starts to twist his fist as he jerks the shaft.

It doesn’t take long. Chulgoo’s breathing quickly gets out of control and despite his efforts to mute himself the corridor is filled with his low groans. Jaewon knows he’s close when the carefully controlled rhythm they’ve established breaks down and his hips start to snap forward with alarming rapidity.

A hand creeps down into Jaewon’s hair, to keep him moving at the right pace for Chulgoo to keep fucking into his mouth. This is standard procedure, as much warning as he gets that the end is nigh. Soon enough, his head will be pushed down as Chulgoo comes down his throat.

“Fuck!” Chulgoo yelps, and rather than pushing Jaewon down he tugs him back. Hard. Hard enough to hurt.

Jaewon’s about to protest, when Chulgoo’s dick jerks violently of its own accord and suddenly he’s got a face full of semen.

“What was that for?” he snaps, going to massage the back of his head, “I think you ripped some of my hair out.”

Chulgoo doesn’t appear to be paying him any attention, and is instead shoving his dick back into his trousers, “I’m sorry! We were just-“

With a sinking feeling in his stomach that has nothing to do with butterflies, Jaewon notes the direction Chulgoo is looking in, and follows his line of site. Sure enough, standing a short way down the corridor, looking stunned and somewhat disgusted, are Mad Clown and Gunhee.

“Th-the corridor is not an appropriate place for sexual activity,” Mad Clown stutters. He looks and sounds terrified, “I’ll have to tell your team leaders about this.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Chulgoo says very quickly. Jaewon agrees with him wholeheartedly, the last thing he wants is for Simon D to know he’s been sucking dick on Mnet property, let alone his manager. He would say as much, but he’s too busy hunting for a clean tissue with which to wipe the spunk off his face.

Gunhee tugs on Mad Clown’s arm, “c’mon, you don’t have to rat them out hyeong.”

Mad Clown glances between Gunhee and Chulgoo for a moment, before the nervous tension holding him upright seems to crumble and he collapses in on himself, “if I catch either of you out of line again, you won’t get off so easy.”

“Thanks! We appreciate it,” Chulgoo calls after them. Jaewon locks eyes with Gunhee and mouths his thanks.

Almost immediately, his phone buzzes in his pocket to herald the arrival of a message from Gunhee reading you owe me.

As Gunhee and Mad Clown footsteps grow faint down the hall, Chulgoo helps Jaewon to his feet, “sorry about that. Didn’t mean to pull so hard.”

“S’ok,” Jaewon shrugs, “I would have done the same.” He would be lying if he said he wasn’t still a little angry, but then Chulgoo pulls him in for an apologetic kiss and it really doesn’t seem so important.

“I’ll make it up to you tomorrow,” Chulgoo promises, glancing at his phone. Jaewon is reminded that they’re here to film and by now they both probably have places to be.

“You could make it up to me by going easy on me on Thursday, in the diss battle,” Jaewon simpers. It’s supposed to sound silly, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t hope Chulgoo will take him up on the offer.

Shaking his head, Chulgoo pulls Jaewon in for a final kiss pressed to his forehead, “nice try.”

They head off their separate ways, for however much more hell Mnet feels like putting them through tonight. The butterflies in Jaewon’s belly flutter nervously, like they know that tomorrow is the last day before he’ll be put out for the slaughter.

 

“Let’s kill it!” Simon D roars as they wait to go onstage. Jaewon tips back his head and hollers along with Kevin and BewhY. Right now, it feels like they could really win this, the promise of a crowd cheering them on sets their sights high, and as they make their way to the stage there’s an undeniable swagger in all their steps.

“You guys are gonna be great,” Kevin beams at both Jaewon and BewhY, “seriously man out team is so good.”

“That’s what I like to hear, some proper confidence,” Simon D holds out a closed fist for Kevin to bump.

If only the whole competition had been like this. Jaewon keeps the memory of his last stage firmly at the front of his mind; he had done so well, he had felt so capable. His stomach lurches every time he remembers his failings in the earlier rounds, and it’s a necessary effort to keep them down, though not one he can’t manage.

Just before they go onstage, Kevin pulls Jaewon into a hug, and tells him in no uncertain terms that he’s sure he’ll be fine.

Jaewon’s left with a pleasant glow sitting in his chest. No matter what else happens onstage today, he will know he has a friend in at least one of his team mates.

The crowd looms large, stretching off into the unlit recesses of Mnet’s main hall. Jaewon steps onstage with a smile, to see Chulgoo already waiting for him, looking for all the world like Christmas has come early.

Something doesn’t quite feel right about it. There’s an edge to Chulgoo’s grin that feels impersonal and untouched. He sees the crowd, but not his fellow contestants. It makes Jaewon feel pre-emptively jilted, so he squashes the idea that he is looking at anything more sinister that professionalism and waits to be called forwards.

Chulgoo is introduced as a ‘freestyle champion’. “Is that so?” Jaewon responds, but the crowd don’t find him funny. They’ve already decided that he’s lost.

“Everyone knows but you,” Chulgoo calls back. The crowd goes wild.

The rest of Team AOMG are much better at shit talking.

“I only take care of him because he’s so much older than me,” Kevin declares of Reddy.

“I tried to be merciful but my lyrics are so strong,” BewhY explains while looking at CJamm.

And Jaewon’s still tired. And Jaewon’s never been in a rap battle before. And Jaewon doesn’t want to look weak. And Jaewon would still like to crawl back into Chulgoo’s bed when all this is done.

But most importantly, he has a team to fall back on. He can shoulder a little humiliation for them. Well, he can do it for Kevin. With his head held high, Jaewon steps forward to accept his fate.

Chulgoo doesn’t shake his hand properly, he’s trying to be funny, play games for the crowd. “Hey One-ah!,” he calls across the stage, “when this is done, you’re gonna resent me.”

Just for a moment, there is nothing dishonest or out of place in Chulgoo’s demeanour. He is telling the truth, as completely as he can. Jaewon’s not entirely sure he doesn’t hear a note of regret in his voice.

Chulgoo moves into Jaewon’s personal space, to domineer and intimidate as freestyle culture supposedly dictates, but it feels too much like something else. The proximity of their bodies, the way the world shrinks down to the two of them, looking into each other’s eyes and waiting for someone to come undone.

So Jaewon runs with that. He leans in like he’s trying to push Chulgoo back, or kiss him, or both. A game of chicken he is happy to see through to its logical conclusion, lips parted like he expects to be met in the middle of this as much as anything else.

Chulgoo doesn’t meet him. Of course he doesn’t. You can’t kiss someone in the middle of a rap battle and expect to get away with it. But Jaewon is alarmed by how quickly is stings when he pulls away laughing.

Before he can put that discomfort into context, Chulgoo is on top of him. Lyrically and emotionally, bearing down with a wicked grin and a tongue too sharp for its own good. He makes a jab about Unpretty Rapstar that reminds Jaewon of his jeers on the first day of filming, he brings up idoldom like it’s a filthy secret, he accuses him of tossing Samuel aside.

Or at least, that’s how it sounds in Jaewon’s ears. The poisoned chalice of his big label status comes up to swallow him whole, unable to shift it, forever the man not good enough to make it on his own and too perfectly formed to exist without serious money behind him. The worst part is that he knew this would happen, that Chulgoo would come at him like this, but feeling it happen to him is so much harder than imagining what it will feel like.

It doesn’t matter how easily Chulgoo deflects words, Jaewon is made of weaker stuff.

What do you see in him? Jaewon asks himself. Chulgoo prepares his final blow.

“My real name is Seo Myungwon,” he jeers, to the delight of the crowd. And just like that, Jaewon doesn’t want anything more to do with him.

Later, when they’re backstage, congratulating BewhY and trying to pick themselves up from their loss in the rap battle, Jaewon will take Kevin aside, just to rant, just to get it out.

“He never even told me his real name!”

“That’s fucked up man,” Kevin nods along, his nose screwed up like the very act of talking about Chulgoo is leaving a bad smell under his nose.

Jaewon can barely believe his own stupidity, “you were right. He’s an arsehole. I should have listened to you.”

“Hey now, don’t beat yourself up about it. It could have happened to anyone.” Kevin hooks an arm round Jaewon and pulls his head in under his chin, “fuck that guy.”

“Fuck him,” Jaewon agrees, relaxing into the hug. The world doesn’t feel small with Kevin, it feels just right.

And yet, when they’re sat backstage, waiting for Mnet to make a decision about what’s happening next in the recording schedule, Jaewon still checks his phone when it buzzes. He’s not surprised to see Chulgoo (Myungwon? He’s not sure if he knows him like that) pop up to talk to him.

You did well

You’re not so bad yourself Jaewon types back, also fuck you

That’s the plan ;) I was thinking tonight? My place?

Jaewon stares, incredulous at his phone. He’s just about to show the message to Kevin so they can marvel at the audacity together when he remembers that as of now his decision to stop screwing around with Chulgoo exists exclusively at a personal level.

Nah, I’m being serious. Fuck you.

???

You think I want shit to do with you after that? You didn’t even tell me your name

Jaewon can practically see the irritated half smile on Chulgoo’s face, furiously typing his response from some other waiting room in another part of the building. When it does arrive, the playful tone is lost, seriously? That’s too much for you? This shit’s for show. I was right you’re way too sensitive for this shit

I thought I told you to get fucked Jaewon types back

So damn predictable comes Chulgoo’s final message. Jaewon deletes his number from his phone, then throws it down in defeat.

 

When Jaewon pulls up to the main YG dorm building, having left recordings for Show Me The Money for the last time, Minho is waiting for him.

“Man I’m so sorry,” he hums, pulling Jaewon into a bone crushing hug, “come on in and tell us all about it.”

Jaewon shrugs him off, putting on his best brave face, “there’s not much to tell. I went on Show Me The Money. I got kicked off Show Me The Money. You know how it goes.”

“Well-“

“Hanbin knows how it goes.”

“Well said,” Minho grins at him, “the two of you can go commiserate over failed glory.”

They head up to the Winner dorm, where it seems the only other occupant is Jinwoo, who’s currently engaged in icing a rather wonky looking cake. He looks up as they come into the kitchen, looking positively radiant, “Jaewon! How are you?”

“I’m fine,” Jaewon holds out a hand to shake but gets a very enthusiastic hug instead. He doesn’t know Jinwoo very well, but he’s not one to turn down a good hug.

Jinwoo returns to the cake, babbling about how he’s spent most of the afternoon making it, “from scratch! Myself!” he crows proudly.

“Wow hyeong that’s so cool,” Minho gasps. He seems genuinely impressed. One of the wonderful things about Song Minho is that he’s always happy for people.

Jinwoo visibly preens. He’s so fragile looking, so doll like with his large eyes and plush lips. For a moment, Jaewon zones out just looking at his face, till Minho drags him back to reality with a sharp elbow to the gut. He supposes this must be how most people feel looking at him.

“Can I smell cake?” Jiwon yells from the front door.

“Of course you can, Jinwoo hyeong hasn’t shut up about baking all day,” Hanbin reminds him curtly.

Their feet slap loud on the wooden floors as they make their way towards the kitchen. No sooner has Jiwon appeared in Jaewon’s line of site than he’s making a beeline for Jinwoo, “c’mon hyeong share!”

Hanbin has a little more control over his stomach, choosing to prioritise Jaewon over cake, “hey there. I hear it’s not good news.”

“Eh, it’s not great news,” Jaewon concedes, “I did alright in the end, it just wasn’t enough.”

“No regrets,” Hanbin asks him seriously.

Smiling, Jaewon shakes his head, “none at all.”

Something about the rather pointed narrowing of Hanbin’s eyes makes Jaewon think that he’s probably aware of the one rather obvious regret currently in play here. Still, for now Seo Chulgoo is out of site and mind, and nothing Olltii has supposedly said is going to change that.

“Who did you go out to in the end?” Minho asks, “Seo Chulgoo?”

“Nah man, no one got eliminated in the rap battle round. It was your cousin that knocked me out.”

Minho blinks at Jaewon for a moment like he hasn’t quite heard him right, then he explodes with a delighted shriek, “Gunhee’s still in?”

“He’s thriving,” Jaewon tells him, dryly.

At his shoulder, Hanbin glares at Minho, no doubt for being an insensitive ass. Jaewon can take it though, in the grand scheme of things Gunhee probably needs the publicity more.

“Shall we eat cake?” Jinwoo pipes up brightly. He has apparently finished icing the cake in rather sloppy pastel pink letters that read Welcome Home One.

It’s chocolate cake, slightly overbaked but to Jaewon it tastes heavenly. Jinwoo marvels at his own baking prowess, Minho is giddy at Gunhee’s triumph. Jiwon looks like he might bust a nut from the cake alone and Hanbin tries to be stern with him – he fails miserably.

Regardless of whatever else it might mean to be in YG, Jaewon’s glad that he has these friends to fall back on.

“Woosung and you should probably have a chat about…things,” Hanbin says, blinking pointedly at Jaewon. He still can’t wink.

Woosung…Olltii…he seems like a decent kid, more or less. But the conversation Jaewon could have with him doesn’t sound comfortable or fun. So he leans back in his chair, closes his eyes, and declares, “it can wait.”

 

Two weeks later, Jaewon’s checking his reflection in the mirror. He adjusts and readjusts his jacket, searching for a way to hide his frame within it that doesn’t look stereotypically Jung Jaewon. He’s already ditched the baseball cap in favour of a beanie, and has a mask pulled up over his face. The most important thing, is that when he steps out, he doesn’t look like himself.

His manager is indisposed, fled the city for a few days with Jaewon’s blessing. She’d been pitifully grateful when he’d agreed to cover for her and stay out of trouble while she was gone, though he can’t pretend that he doesn’t enjoy the enhanced freedom.

Jaewon leaves his dorm, heads down the road, catches a subway to Hongdae. It’s the middle of the day and no one tells him that he can’t. No one even recognises him. He blends into the midweek crowds gleefully, he doesn’t think public transport ever felt so good.

When he arrives, Kevin is waiting for him. He’s less well disguised that Jaewon, his dreads tied back with an oversized scrunchy, wearing cargo shorts underneath a button down shirt. After everything, he can stand in the street, in broad daylight, and no one stops him.

“Funny how fame works,” Kevin muses as they duck between streets in search of a relatively uncrowded café, “I was at Brown two nights ago and people couldn’t leave me alone. But today…”

“It’s all the tourists, they don’t give a shit about Korean hiphop,” Jaewon nods I the direction of a group of westerners gathered round a boy with a guitar like they’ve never seen a busker before.

“Hey, I’m a foreigner!” Kevin protests.

“Yeah but-“

“But what?”

“That’s different.” Jaewon throws up his hands in defeat, “I dunno man you don’t seem like an American.”

“And yet, I am one.”

They slip into a café well off the main drag, and take their iced lattes out to the tables on the street. Occasionally, groups of students or tourists come wandering by, some of them do a double take when they see Jaewon and Kevin, like they might just recognise them, but no one stops to ask them if they’re One and G2.

Jaewon takes a long slurp of his drink, “damn that’s so good.”

Kevin cocks an eyebrow at him, “just an iced latte man”

“You don’t understand. My manager never lets me drink milk. She’s scared I’m gonna get fat overnight if I eat anything that’s not a vegetable.”

“Yikes,” Kevin shakes his head, “you idols really don’t have an easy time of it.”

“I’m not an idol,” Jaewon corrects him.

“Maybe not any more. But you were, and you will be again.”

“You don’t know that,”

“Sure I do,” Kevin reaches forward to rest a reassuring hand on Jaewon’s shoulder, “you’ll be fine.”

The sun is riding high in the sky, and with a jolt Jaewon realises that he’s very hot indeed. Black clothes in the summer are never a good idea, but somewhere along the line he lost track of the seasons. He pauses with his fingers on the zip of his jacket, debating whether he can risk taking it off or not, if that would be a step too far.

“If you’re hot, take your jacket off,” Kevin rolls his eyes, “what’s the worst that could happen? Someone might recognise you?”

“I see your point, but my manager would be in a world of trouble if I was caught.”

“Why? Because she was a human for five minutes and so were you? Listen, if the company’s gonna be breathing down your neck like this no matter what, you might as well have some fun.”

“Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting for someone to say that to me?” Jaewon breathes a sigh of relief pulling off his jacket. For good measure, he ditches the beanie as well.

Kevin’s lips pinch with suppressed laughter, “you have such bad hat hair.”

“My wild locks must be let free,” Jaewon runs a hand through his hair, tossing it out behind him where he can feel it bounce erratically to a rhythm of it’s own devising, “so tell me, what have you been up to since they so unfavourably booted you off Show Me The Money in favour of yours truly?”

“Yeah, that didn’t work out so well for them did it?” Kevin teases, like Jaewon needs reminding, “I dunno man I’ve been chilling. Working on some new material, gearing up for some gigs.”

“Gigs! Man I wish I got to do gigs,” Jaewon says, as much to himself as anything, “you got space for a support act who barely has two full songs to his name?”

“If you played at one of my gigs, more people would show up for you than for me.”

“So?” Jaewon puts on his best cocky smile.

Kevin falls for it, hook line and sinker. Scowling only semi-seriously, he leans in to explain in big slow syllables like you might to a child. “If people show up for you, you’re not the support act, you’re the main event.”

“Aren’t I always?” Jaewon beams. Kevin gives a drawn out groan of fake irritation and crashes back into his chair.

“Look at you all cocky. You’ve picked up since Show Me The Money.”

“Tell me about it,” Jaewon shudders, “that show was seriously bad for my nerves. And my sleeping habits. I dunno what I was thinking going back.”

Kevin is silent. Jaewon looks round to find him staring into space, pensively, like he’s searching very hard for the question he wants to ask.

Jaewon reaches over to touch him lightly on the shoulder, but that doesn’t snap him out of it, “Kevin? You ok?”

With a great huff, Kevin comes back into the conversation. He looks distinctly uncomfortable, and Jaewon starts to worry that he might be wrestling with bad news.

“It’s just…I mean…I don’t wanna sound insensitive but…” Kevin starts. And stops. And starts again.

“Spit it out,” Jaewon urges him, voice more confident than he feels.

Kevin has to stare at the table to talk properly, “You seemed kinda fucked up about Seo Chulgoo and like…are you alright?”

Oh. That simple. Despite himself, Jaewon lets out a bark of relieved laughter, “Seo Chulgoo? Yeah man I’m fine. He was like a one week thing.”

The truth is that Jaewon’s still angrier than he probably should be, and he keeps sidestepping Hanbin’s attempts to get him to talk to Olltii. It’s silly, to let something that didn’t even count as a proper relationship hold so much weight over him, but it turns out that the one thing he really hates is being lied to.

Perhaps Kevin can sense that he’s not getting the full story, perhaps he just needs to finish his piece. Either way, he ploughs onwards, “I mean, I know that you’re a grown ass man and you can handle yourself but he just struck me as a bit of a user and I was worried for you back there.”

“I had no idea you were paying so much attention,” Jaewon tries to keep his voice bright but even he can hear the note of bitterness that creeps in. He’s rather touched that Kevin took the time to look out for him, lord knows that even now, much as they enjoy each other’s company they don’t really know each other that well.

That’s probably what makes Kevin so easy to be around. He’s very straightforward, he doesn’t keep important shit up his sleeves. Jaewon looks at him and sees an open book that won’t judge him for being closed sometimes, and in that way he kind of reminds him of Minho, though he possesses a perceptiveness that sets him apart.

“Yeah well, I don’t normally like guys like that.” Kevin says. He says it so casually that it takes Jaewon a moment to cut through his voice to the words beneath.

Kevin is suddenly very interested in the contents of his cup, fingers tightening around the plastic rim, head bent low over it, like he’s waiting for the milky brown liquid to swallow him whole. His cheeks are burning, and he’s conspicuously avoiding looking at Jaewon in a manner that would be funny if it weren’t so ludicrously unexpected.

“Well,” Jaewon says, because someone has to say something, “I didn’t see that coming.”

“I shouldn’t have said anything,” Kevin groans, “shit. I’ve made it awkward, haven’t I? Just forget I opened my mouth.”

Jaewon shrugs, “I’m not awkward. I promise not to be if you aren’t either.” And truthfully, he doesn’t feel particularly like the fundamentals of their friendship have been displaced. Just because he wasn’t aware that Kevin’s feelings for him were anything more than friendly doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t make sense after he’s had a moment or two to mull it around his head. They’re a similar age, they get on, they both love hiphop, they’re at ease with each other – he’s heard of worse recipes for happiness than that.

Kevin evidently feels the need to backpedal against the wheel of time nonetheless, “just to be clear, I didn’t invite you out today as a ‘secret date’ or anything. I just wanted to hang out as friends. I don’t want anything from you.” He looks at Jaewon with pleading eyes, waiting for a judgement that’s never going to fall on his head. Taking crushes so seriously must be exhausting.

Jaewon gestures to the coffee on the table, “we’re at a café together. We’re talking. We’re having fun. No one else is here. This could be a date.”

“But…I just said it didn’t have to be,” Kevin looks at him nonplussed.

“And I said it could be.”

“But you don’t like me like that.”

“I haven’t had time to think about it yet. I might do, you never know,” Jaewon smiles as casually as he can at Kevin. He looks like he needs calming down. Hell, he looks like he needs to lie down.

Gradually, Kevin’s shoulders relax, though he looks no less confused about his stroke of good luck. “Right. So, how does this work?”

“First, I do this,” Jaewon drags his chair closer to Kevin, close enough that his hand is in easy holding distance, if it should come to that, “then, you tell me that you’re gonna get me on the guest list for your next gig.”

“Already done,” Kevin mutters, and a fresh wave of scarlet washes over his face.

Adorable. Jaewon will have to work him up to proper compliments. Straight boys always need to take their time.

“Then what?” Kevin asks, eagerly, hanging off every word.

“Then whatever,” Jaewon replies, “we keep going as before. You can start by telling me about the new music you’re working on.”

The more he talks, the more Kevin’s initial nerves get themselves under control, and by the time they’re done with their coffee it’s like nothing has changed. Except that now Jaewon’s paying more attention to the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes when he smiles, and how his every emotion is displayed through his cheeks. There are no butterflies, no instantaneous attraction, but there’s the beginnings of proper trust between them, and that feels promising.

Jaewon has been looking for trust for a long time. Trust in himself, trust in his future, trust in anyone beyond the four white walls of the trainee building. Sitting outside, in the Hongdae sun, with a whole host of trials behind him and Kevin chattering excitedly about dirty bass and clipped high hat beats, he feels like he might have a real shot at sorting his life out. It may not be everything he ever hoped for, but it’s a start.