Crossing the Starting Line, Hand in Hand

Crossing the Starting Line, Hand in Hand

When he was twelve, Junhee almost went to a vocational school. His parents wanted a son in the medical profession, wanted it so badly that Junhee was almost convinced he wanted it as well. But looking at diagrams of skeletons and organs couldn’t erase his restlessness; Junhee had to move. Had to dance when he was alone in a room, had to sing in the shower or the car or everywhere. Junhee was barely in high school when he somehow convinced his parents to let him audition for a talent agency. They thought he wouldn’t pass, and it would be a phase.

(He did. It wasn’t.)

Then again, isn’t this almost a vocational school? A sweatier, more creative version of college with less books? Junhee has no plans to go to college, because whatever that’s like, it can’t be harder than this.

This—Only sleeping after he memorizes a full choreography, going to vocal sessions until his throat is raw and doing it again the next day. Not seeing his family for weeks, months. Losing friends back home in favor of new ones with similar passions. Losing those friends, too, when they decide, “The idol life just isn’t meant for me.” Working his off and earning nothing.

It’s not for everyone. But for Junhee, it’s perfect. He spent two years floating from company to company, trying to find the right one for him. He's done searching now.

When Junhee first arrived at Beat Interactive, the very first day of training, he looked around the studio and took in all the faces. Those were the people he’d spend part of his life with. And now, when Junhee looks around the crowded studio, all the faces are different. Out of all the boys in his audition season, he’s the only one left.

Today the new trainees file in like cattle at auction. It’s even worse knowing that most of them won’t last. Sometimes, Junhee isn’t sure he can last much longer, either.

The manager encourages the older trainees to look after the new ones, and it becomes a mingling session. Junhee’s good at things like this, but the new trainees seem shy and nervous. There’s a tall guy with cropped hair standing in the middle of the studio, looking around with wide eyes. The perfect target. “Hi, I’m Park Junhee,” he greets the trainee with a bright smile, “I haven’t seen you around before.”

“Today’s my first day,” he says, “I’m Lee Donghun.”

Junhee is supposed to talk with lots of trainees today, but after meeting Donghun, there’s only one person he wants to talk to. Donghun is immediately interesting to Junhee—a vocal major whose goal is to debut so he can support his family. He’s older than Junhee by a year, and when Donghun smiles, his teeth are all crooked.

Junhee doesn’t have that sixth sense where he can look at someone and tell if they’ll be around for long. From a first impression, Donghun seems to have a strong willpower. All Junhee can do is hope that he sticks around, hope that he can make a long-term friend.

“So why are you training here?” Donghun asks, “You want to debut, too?”

A lot of the trainees don’t want to debut. They just want to improve in singing or dancing, or use this company as a launchpad for a larger one. But that’s not Junhee. “I think I’d like to, yeah,” he says, “But I’m a long way off from that.”

Another boy approaches them then, an older trainee without a partner to talk to. Junhee has practiced with him before, and they nod at each other. It’s Junhee’s cue to leave; there are more trainees to meet. He smiles at Donghun before moving onto another trainee—“I’ll see you.”

And Donghun smiles back, with his crooked teeth. “See you.”

Junhee can’t help but think of all the trainees he’s met only once, and never again.

 


 

The CEO announces his plans to debut a boy group, and no one is surprised. There are far more male trainees here than female ones, and with every season the company’s been saving up money. Junhee notices it in the little things—the water fountain installed outside the bathroom, the shiny new ‘Beat Interactive’ sign hanging in the practice room.

So nobody is surprised that a group is going to debut. Junhee just didn’t expect to be the CEO’s top candidate for leader of said group.

It’s a position Junhee can’t refuse. He’s been here longer than most trainees, has put months of work into perfecting his skills. This is the kind of responsibility he’s ready for.  

"I'm thinking seven members," the man tells him, and Junhee agrees. Seven is popular now, isn't it? “And you’ll be called A.C.E.”

Junhee likes that. It’s simple, but meaningful. “Do you have the lineup picked out already, sir?”

“I have a good idea,” he says, “You, of course, and Kim Seyoon—” (Junhee has heard of Kim Seyoon, spoken to him in passing a few times. He's talented; that's good—) “Han Jungmin, Kim Hakjun—" They've been here a while, Junhee remembers, “Kang Yoochan, and Lee Donghun,” He doesn’t recognize the first, but the second name sounds familiar. “We're also hoping to recruit the last member from a larger company.”

The number of trainees here—serious trainees, with big dreams and tough skin—is low. But all of them are capable; Junhee can only trust his boss and fulfill his role as best he can.

That night, Junhee’s mother calls him. He doesn’t tell her about the group. Not yet. He’ll wait, until possibility becomes something more concrete.

 


 

The first day as A.C.E is rough. They went from seven to four overnight (the bad news had definitely weighed Junhee down), and Junhee’s not sure this is a good idea anymore. Hope of a five-member group at most comes from the thin chance they can actually secure a trainee from a different company, and that might not happen for a while.

But still, Junhee’s here, shuffling around nervously outside the practice room door, ready to properly meet his group members for the first time.

He’s the leader. He shouldn’t be nervous; he should march into the room with confidence and greet the other guys with a smile. So, in a burst of boldness, that’s what Junhee does.

Three boys are sitting in a kind-of circle on the floor. Two look very tired, and one seems to be facilitating any conversation that was happening. But once Junhee enters, the three heads snap toward the door and a tall boy jumps up to greet him. “Are you Park Junhee?” he asks, “Nice to meet you, I’m Kang Yoochan,” And for how early in the morning it is, Junhee doesn’t expect his arm to be swept into a warm handshake.

“I am, nice to meet you as well.” Junhee returns the handshake (he can’t exactly match Yoochan’s enthusiasm, but he tries) and glances toward the other two trainees.

And there—he can’t believe it. Once Junhee puts the name to the face, there’s no mistaking it. That’s Lee Donghun, the same trainee he’d met three years ago. It’s a wonder that they haven’t run into each other before; Junhee assumed he dropped out. Donghun is taller, broader, his hair is neater, and he has braces now that give him a pseudo-charming appearance. “Hello again,” Junhee smiles at him.

“Oh, hello.” He can’t tell if Donghun remembers him or not. They shake hands anyway.

The third guy, Junhee recognizes him as Kim Seyoon. He seems shy, not saying anything in favor of bowing politely toward Junhee. And Junhee does the same, before they all sit back down on the polished wood floor.

There are no staff here. It’s just them, alone in a tiny practice room, trying to get a feel for one another. Junhee’s an outgoing guy, but he can be reserved at times like this. When things are uncertain, when everything rests on his shoulders. Yoochan is the one who tentatively breaks their silence: “So… this is our group?” A hopeful smile lights up his face.

Hearing him say it out loud does something to Junhee. They’re a group. He glances at Seyoon, then at Donghun, and back to Yoochan. Junhee promises to himself that however long it takes, they’ll make it. “This is our group. It’s us plus one.”

Donghun is smiling; Junhee can see it at the edge of his vision. It’s the kind of smile that just comes, the kind no one can stop. And farther to his right, Seyoon’s lips turn up into a smile as well.

A group. Junhee likes the sound of that.

 


 

The last time Junhee talked to his parents, they were insanely curious as to what his group members were like. And all Junhee could tell them was their names and what each specialized in. Enough for the moment, but he felt guilty that he didn’t know his own group.

It’s a new goal: get to know the three other guys as though they were his brothers. And when the last guy arrives, get to know him, too.

He starts easy, with Yoochan. A list of questions writes itself in Junhee’s mind, and Yoochan answers them all like it’s an interview. His favorite color, what he likes to eat, his family back home. “Leader,” Yoochan likes calling him that even though they’re not a real group yet, likes saying it in a sing-song voice, “This is like speed-dating. If you want to get to know someone, you just have to be with them.” He’s the youngest of them all, but Yoochan is smart.

Junhee stops with the questions, starts with the observations: Yoochan is a morning person. He has a sweet tooth and talks about simple things a lot, like nature and animals. Yoochan is extremely clumsy and always forgets what day of the week it is. All of this, Junhee learns during practice. Right now they’re working on beginner projects, like teamwork and group vocal training. But it’s the in-between moments that Junhee takes to observe. He learns a lot about Yoochan from this.

Kim Seyoon is an entirely different challenge. He’s like the Pandora’s Box of Beat Interactive, and Junhee has no idea how to start breaking down his walls. From his base observations, Seyoon is perfect. He never has a bad day, and messes up the dance steps a lot less than the rest of them. Handsome, talented, and mysterious. There must be something more, something human. Junhee puts him on the back-burner for now, but vows that he’ll learn Seyoon like the back of his hand in no time.

And then there’s Lee Donghun. In all of Junhee’s time here, he’s never met someone so strikingly normal. There’s nothing particularly crazy about him, and that gets under Junhee’s skin. But when Donghun opens his mouth—that’s when Junhee sees stars. Or hears them; Donghun’s voice is a work of art. Once Junhee realizes this, the little things start falling into place: Donghun is suddenly the least normal person in his life. He’s wildly intelligent and always knows what to say. Donghun is caring, and aware of what he needs to work on. Junhee’s been making observations about him for a few weeks, and doesn’t think he’ll ever stop. There’s so much to learn about Donghun, and from him.

Nobody notices one day when Yoochan pinches his finger in the door. Not Junhee, not Seyoon, not the staff. But Donghun does, even when Yoochan tries to hide his pain. Within five minutes, there’s a cool paper towel wrapped around Yoochan’s little finger. Donghun just looks after people like that.           

It makes Junhee realize that while he’s been making all these observations, he hasn’t been the only one.

 


 

Byeongkwan arrives that first winter. They’ve been practicing for months already, working so hard that Junhee almost forgets another member is supposed to join them. But sure enough, December rolls around and Kim Byeongkwan shows up at their practice room door.

He’s from JYP. That’s a big name; Junhee’s almost nervous to begin practice with him. It quickly becomes clear, however, that Byeongkwan is down-to-earth, polite, and friendly. He explains that he was getting lost in a large pool, wanted something more intimate. Junhee thinks he’s come to the right place.

Since the four of them were grouped together, a real sense of security has formed between them. These guys have become the friends Junhee has always wanted as a trainee. Even Seyoon, who Junhee’s still struggling to observe—they all feel like family already.

And Byeongkwan fits right in. The boy has no issue in proving his talent; amazingly, Byeongkwan can do anything. Sing, dance, rap, and even speak English. It’s his personality—open and with a strong sense of humor—that makes Junhee forget they were ever a group without Byeongkwan.

Late one night, Junhee heads to the practice room to retrieve his water bottle. He ignores Donghun’s pleas of, “Just rest; we practiced hard today”because Junhee’s thirsty. He doesn’t expect all the lights to be on in the room (he’d watched Yoochan turn them off hours earlier) and he definitely doesn’t expect to see Seyoon and Byeongkwan sitting with their backs against the mirror, talking. Junhee watches them for a moment, and the two don’t notice him. They look so relaxed, and Seyoon has this toothy smile on his face that Junhee’s never seen from him.

It’s not only Byeongkwan talking at Seyoon—Seyoon is participating in the conversation just as eagerly, like he’s the most outgoing man on earth. “Hey guys,” Junhee says after a moment, and two pairs of eyes find him in surprise, “Didn’t expect to see you here.”

“We’re just chatting,” Byeongkwan pats the floor next to him, “Here, come sit with us.”

The excitement in Seyoon’s eyes fades a bit, and in an instant he’s back to how Junhee normally sees him. “I’ll pass,” Junhee’s water bottle is on top of the cabinet next to the door, and he snatches it up. “Just came for my water bottle. It’s late, you two should get to bed.” Past midnight, actually. Junhee’s tired and sore.

“We will, Mom, don’t worry.” Byeongkwan has been hanging out with Yoochan too much. Seyoon gives him a goodbye nod, and Junhee can only trust them to get some sleep.

Junhee is too tired to think about it that night, but when he wakes up it’s suddenly all he can think about. How talkative Seyoon had been, how happy he’d looked. Byeongkwan had accomplished in a few weeks what Junhee had failed to do in months.

He asks Donghun. “Have you noticed that when Byeongkwan’s around, Seyoon’s a lot more… peppy?” Junhee’s voice is hushed, like this is some ground-breaking secret.

To his surprise, Donghun nods. “I noticed it two days ago. I’m not sure what Byeongkwan did, but I’m glad he talks to at least someone.”

Junhee thought he was the only one who noticed. Yoochan, and the staff, and the other trainees—they don’t act like Seyoon’s reserved personality is anything to worry about. But Junhee’s the leader; he has to worry. Seyoon’s older than him, and can take care of himself, but it’s always frustrated Junhee that maybe Seyoon has a hard time trusting people. Discovering that Donghun has the same concerns makes Junhee feel more at ease.

It only takes a few days for there to be changes. Seyoon starts talking more at meals and during breaks. He smiles more, laughs more. His sense of humor is surprising and a bit dorky. Junhee learns more about Seyoon in one week than he has during months of training. It’s the most remarkable thing, and whenever Seyoon’s in a particularly social mood, Junhee glances over at Donghun and they share a look comparable to pride.

“You’ve really been opening up recently,” Junhee comments when it’s just him and Seyoon at the drinking fountain and Seyoon finishes a rather long story about his time in high school, “Something in the water?”

Seyoon shrugs, but there’s an almost-smile playing at his lips. “I take a while to warm up to new things.”

“And Byeongkwan helped you?”

The way Seyoon’s eyes widen a bit is interesting, like he’s been found out. “Yeah, I guess he has. We just get along, you know? You have people like that, too, right?”

He’s been asked questions like this before, or told to think of someone he feels comfortable around. And usually, Junhee imagines his family or his friends back in grade school. This time, his mind immediately switches to Donghun.

“Yeah. Yeah, I do.”

 


 

“Give me back my socks or you’ll feel pain, Kim Byeongkwan!”

The lounge is a public space, and they really shouldn’t be behaving like this here, but Yoochan has his mind made up. Junhee slumps back in his chair, watching with mild amusement as Yoochan vaults himself over the table to tackle Byeongkwan on the couch—Jason. Junhee needs to get used to that name.

I’ll stop them in five seconds, Junhee thinks, but he must admit it’s quite the floor show. Five seconds come and go, and Yoochan has Byeongkwan teetering on the very edge of the couch, trying to rip Byeongkwan’s—Jason’s—socks from his feet. Junhee’s just waiting for a bad move from one of them, any opportunity to cut in and stop their fun.

Jason hangs his arm down to the floor and snatches up a stray pillow that had been a casualty of their roughhousing. As one sock comes off from Yoochan’s aggressive tugging, there goes the pillow, swinging to knock Yoochan in the head.

“Hey!”

Junhee leaps to his feet and points his finger, but that wasn’t his voice. Donghun pipes up from where he leans against the back wall, “No pillow fights.”

“You just made that rule up, Mom.” Yoochan whines. He laughs, glancing between Junhee and Donghun, “You both look like cranky homeowners, and we’re your new puppies.”

Junhee relaxes his shoulders and falls back in his chair. “I’m not cranky…” The word mom rings in his head; Junhee remembers Jason calling him that a long time ago.

The sock in Yoochan’s hand, instead of being transferred to his own foot, flies to the other side of the room, landing in Seyoon’s lap. “I needed new socks,” he comments. Yoochan and Jason seem to view that as a challenge, launching over the poorly-patterned carpet to go fight Seyoon.

A sigh comes from behind Junhee, and he turns to see Donghun kneel beside his chair. “What are we going to do with them?”

“They’re crazy,” The two talk in hushed voices, trying not to disturb the affectionate chaos across the room, “Seyoon’s a masochist.”

Donghun laughs softly, a breathless sound Junhee can barely hear.

When Junhee glances at Donghun again, he looks happy.

 


 

They start with other groups’ content. Junhee’s anxious to have their own song—they all are—but the staff says doing covers will build teamwork.

He doesn’t believe it at first, but once they start practicing actual songs instead of just exercises and drills, everything falls into place. Jason and Seyoon—Wow, that’s an even tougher name for Junhee—are surprisingly good at rapping. Yoochan’s great at harmonizing, and Donghun doesn’t like being featured in a choreography. All their strengths and weaknesses come to light through the covers.

Over time, it evens out. Their voices are worked every day, and they find this rhythm that pulls all their dancing in sync. Jason could easily pass as a strict vocalist with the training he gets, and likewise, Donghun could pass as a dancer.

Junhee actually becomes more fascinated with Donghun by the day. Even if it’s another artist’s song, Donghun manages to make it his own, so effortlessly. They hold busking events when the weather is nice; it’s a shame, Junhee thinks, how the mics don’t do Donghun’s voice justice.

And in no time, Donghun becomes someone Junhee really admires. His work ethic is remarkable. Even when their practice wraps up for the day, the only time Donghun stops practicing is at mealtime or late at night when Junhee almost drags him from the studio. When he tells Junhee to get some rest, Junhee protests, staying with Donghun until he does the same.

Junhee only realizes it after dinner one night when he looks into the living room and everyone’s doing their own thing: Yoochan listening to music, Jason on his phone, and Seyoon nearly passed out on the floor. But Donghun’s in the kitchen, right beside Junhee, and they wash the dishes together. It’s Seyoon’s turn, but he’s been overworking himself lately and deserves this break.

And that’s when the realization comes: “Hey,” Junhee keeps his voice low, “When did we become the parents?”

“The parents?”

“You know,” Junhee’s not sure if there’s a great way to explain it, “We look after them. Yoochan’s pretty much your son, and you do his laundry every week. I’m in charge of dealing out the allowance. We’re the only two who know how to cook. You drive whenever we go busking. I opened my bag the other day and it’s filled with other people’s stuff. Things like that.”

Donghun concentrates, mulls it over for a minute. “Huh. I guess we are the parents.”

Junhee decided he likes the sound of it.

 


 

The first time any of them has a breakdown is in February. Junhee comes back to the dorm one day to find Chan in tears, curled up in Seyoon’s lap as the other boy tried to comfort him with wide eyes. Spotting Junhee, Seyoon gives him a sad look. “We were just sitting here and then he started crying. I’m not good at this.”

“I’m okay,” Chan mutters through sobs that wrack his body. It’s hard to watch.

Junhee is surprised this hasn’t happened sooner. Overworking themselves has become a regular occurrence, and there’s so much pressure to be perfect. He sinks down to kneel in front of Seyoon’s small mattress smoothing circles into Chan’s back. He’s a mess—Junhee’s never seen Chan be anything but energetic and positive before. “What’s wrong, Channie?”

“I miss my family,” Chan’s voice breaks at every word, “And—and our debut, it’s so soon. What if we fail?” The door opens somewhere behind them. “Will it all be for nothing?”

That’s a question Junhee has asked himself before. Maybe they’ve all wondered it, but Chan’s the only one brave enough to do so out loud. There’s no answer. Nothing Junhee can say will make Chan feel more at ease, because everything is up in the air. So Junhee says, “I miss my family, too.”

Jason and Donghun are back, he can hear their footsteps behind him, and Seyoon gives them an apologetic smile. In a flash, Jason scoops Chan up from Seyoon’s lap. Chan lets out a surprised noise, distorted even more by his crying. “Cheer up, Chan,” Jason says, “We’re family now, right?”

That hits Junhee hard. Seeing other people cry is bad enough, but the idea that these four guys are his new family makes Junhee’s eyes water. Seyoon and Byeongkwan don’t notice, thankfully, but as Junhee reaches up to pat Chan’s shoulder, his other hand is filled with warmth. There’s Donghun, knelt next to Junhee on the floor, holding Junhee’s hand in both his own.

Donghun’s eyes are always sad. They speak to Junhee—have since the first time they met—and now, there’s a sparkle of reassurance hidden in those dark eyes that Junhee feeds off. And when Donghun’s thumb runs back and forth across Junhee’s knuckles, he knows everything will be okay.

 


 

Junhee isn’t sure whose idea it was to bring alcohol, but they all blame it on Byeongkwan. He comes back to the dorm with a bag full of cheap liquor, and Chan’s eyes nearly bulge out of his head. Junhee has shared a few drinks with Chan before, but the boy has never gotten completely trashed, and tonight, that’s the goal.

The managers don’t know they’re doing this; Jason even had to pay in cash so they wouldn’t track down the purchase later. It adds more excitement to their little party—not once since they began training together have they ever been rebellious as a group. Sometimes Chan would sneak out for a walk and drag Donghun with him, or Seyoon would skip practice when he was extra tired, but the five of them have never done this together. Junhee remembers joking, days before Chan’s 20th birthday, that they should take him to a strip club, but no one was so against that idea as Chan himself.

Donghun pours a round of shots and already, the energy is high. He keeps his voice low when he says, “To A.C.E,” but the hushed atmosphere is ruined as Jason throws his shot back with a noise of delight. Even though it’s cheap, the soju has that perfect strong flavor.

Seyoon handles his alcohol the best. He definitely loosens up, however, becoming uncharacteristically social after a few drinks. As expected, Chan is bouncing off the walls by his fourth drink, and Donghun even turns some music on to cover up how loud he is. It’s a ty deep-house-club-fusion playlist, but it does the job.

“Are you gonna be the responsible one?” he asks Donghun, “So that means I can drink?”

Donghun clinks his beer bottle against Junhee’s. “No promises.”

It’s nice, unwinding with friends after working hard. They’ll feel it in the morning, but Junhee thinks it’s worth the hangover.

Remarkably, in all the time they’ve known each other, Junhee has never gotten drunk with Donghun. Usually Donghun decides, in the smart way of his, to look after other people and only have a few drinks. But tonight he lets go, and Junhee is almost glad they’ve never been drunk at the same time before.

He’s touchy when he’s wasted, round cheeks flushed and hand never straying far from Junhee’s back. And in Junhee’s equally intoxicated state, he sees no problem in leaning against Donghun, laughing into the man’s shoulder.

Junhee says something late into the night—he doesn’t remember what he said but it must have been important—and Donghun likes it so much that he holds Junhee at the neck and plants a kiss on his cheek. Junhee just laughs; they should drink together more often if Donghun behaves like this. He almost forgets the other members are there until Chan starts chanting, “Kiss, kiss, kiss!” There’s no hesitation from either party—Junhee tilts his head and meets Donghun’s mouth through a smile. He isn’t sure who tastes more strongly of liquor, but he can feel Donghun’s braces against his bottom lip and Donghun’s hand at his neck. Somewhere close by, Seyoon lets out a whistle when they separate. It’s Junhee’s first instinct to knock back another drink, replacing Donghun with a cold glass bottle. Donghun’s eyes follow him the entire time. Junhee loves it.

That’s the last thing he clearly remembers about that night.

In the morning, it’s a miracle that they all wake up in their beds and the floor isn’t too messy. They all agree last night was insanely fun, but they should save it for special occasions. Nobody talks about when Junhee and Donghun kissed. Junhee analyzes Donghun’s face the entire morning, and concludes that maybe he’s the only one who remembers it.

Thinking about Donghun is worse than the hangover.

 


 

The roof of the company building never gets much use; Junhee didn’t know they had a roof until Seyoon started going up there during his free time. “It’s relaxing,” Seyoon says, “You’re so high up that it’s like another world.”

Junhee keeps this in the back of his head, and on one particularly stressful day, he takes the elevator up to the roof. It’s calm here, and quiet, but not empty. Junhee can see a man lying flat on the concrete, and when he gets closer he realizes the man is Donghun. “Hi.”

Donghun sits up, gives him a wide smile. “Hi.” And when Junhee goes to sit next to him, Donghun doesn’t protest. “You’re feeling stressed, too?”

“Yeah,” Donghun lets out a sigh, “If you’re stressed, I hardly noticed. You should be an actor.” He stretches his arm so it’s behind Junhee, and if Junhee were to lay back down it would be underneath his back.

They sit in silence for some time, watching clouds float in and out of vision, listening to the faint city noise below. If Donghun weren’t here, Junhee imagines this would feel lonely, but even without speaking, Junhee likes having Donghun at his side. He doesn’t know, Junhee thinks, that he’s partly the reason for Donghun’s stress.

Junhee likes Donghun. He’s always liked Donghun, since they met three years ago, but every moment they spent together, Junhee started liking him more. And three years is a long time for emotion to pile up into something confusing, overwhelming.

If someone asked him, as A.C.E’s leader Jun, which member he likes most, Jun wouldn’t be able to say. But if someone asked Park Junhee who he likes most in the entire world, the answer would be “Lee Donghun.” Yes, Junhee likes everything about Donghun, even the little things that get on his nerves.

After a length of time Junhee can’t place, he stops looking at the sky and starts looking at the man next to him. Donghun has this calmness to his entire face that makes Junhee relax a bit more. “Donghun.”

“Yeah?” He turns his head to look at Junhee.

“We’ll be good, right?”

It’s vague, but Donghun understands what he means. His posture shifts so he can move his hand up, run it along Junhee’s back. “You’re an amazing leader, Junhee. So yes, we’ll be good. Don’t worry.”

On some level, Junhee knows they’re getting closer, but he only realizes it when Donghun’s forehead bumps against his own. Junhee tries not think about kissing him, but that’s so hard. The hazy memory of their drunken kiss from a month ago keeps fading away and he craves a new one to fill in the spaces. How is it possible to like Donghun so much?

Donghun’s soft eyes are looking directly at his lips, and Junhee wants to ask, “What’s stopping you?” but it’s the same thing stopping Junhee: everything. He’s trusted Donghun since day one. If anybody knows what’s good for them, it’s him. Every part of Junhee likes every part of Donghun, and every part of the world tells him that’s a problem.

So Junhee decides he’ll keep looking, and wanting, and liking. Just not too close.

When Donghun chuckles, Junhee can feel it where their foreheads touch. “I’m glad you came up here,” Donghun doesn’t speak loudly—he doesn’t need to, with how close they are, “It’s peaceful up here, but a bit lonely, don’t you think?”

Junhee laughs too, and pulls himself out of Donghun’s gravity to stand up. “I was thinking the exact same thing.” And he helps Donghun to his feet. They walk back into the building together, Donghun’s arm around Junhee’s shoulder and the clear sky above them.

 


 

It’s been a year and a half. The longest year and a half of Junhee’s life—there have been tears, pain, laughter, and everything in between.

Their head manager comes into the practice room one day (which doesn’t happen often) and asks them to run through their choreo as he watches. Junhee can do this dance in his sleep. The moves of ‘Cactus’ have been permanently burned into his muscles, and that’s true for everyone. Chan practices his kick move when he enters the bathroom each morning, and Seyoon is obsessed with doing his intro part. But no one practices as much as Donghun. It’s shocking, how dedicated that man is to getting everything perfect.

So they dance for their manager, with almost no errors. Then he asks them to sing the song acapella—again, not a problem. ‘Cactus’ is the only song they’ve been singing for months. And then he asks them to do both at the same time, playing the instrumental instead.

The most rewarding feeling in the world is when they’re done, sweaty and breathless, and the manager claps his hands together and says, “You’re ready.”

The weeks after that pass in a blur. They film a music video (a real, professional music video with a big set and dozens of cameras), photo shoots, hold press events, and practice harder than ever. It isn’t crunch time—they’re ready, have been itching to debut for months—but all five of them are nervous something will go wrong.

And then it’s time to be idols. Walking up to the show venue so early in the morning and letting professionals work away on their faces. Donghun looks good with makeup, Junhee thinks; he’s seen Donghun with makeup before, at every big event, but the smudge of dark liner and the subtle bronzing really adds something to his boyish face. Donghun’s handsome.

It’s their first music show; naturally, they’re bouncing around with crazy excitement. And finally—finally, they’ve waited five hours for this, and it feels more like a year and a half—a staff member knocks on the dressing room door. “A.C.E, please be on standby to go on after the set changes.”

All day, Junhee hasn’t been nervous. He’s been savoring the idol treatment instead, enjoying the experience. But standing backstage, glancing through a tiny gap in the wall to see dozens of media personnel and the fans behind them, the nerves stab him like a dagger. Junhee looks around, almost frantically, and his head stops swimming when he locks eyes with Donghun. “Guys,” Donghun corrals the other members in, slings his arm around Junhee’s shoulder. Jason is wedged against Junhee’s other side, and the way Donghun looks at him as they huddle up is completely focused.

Junhee takes a deep breath; last night, he’d thought up a ‘leader speech’ to hype them up before the stage, but all of it goes out the window. He hopes these four men understand how important they are to Junhee, how deserving they are to be here. So he scraps the speech and settles on, “I’m proud of you all.”

When they break the huddle, a stagehand finds them and says, “Get ready to go on at the light cue. Good luck!”

And as they line up, and Junhee’s heart dances in his chest, he feels Donghun take his hand. Junhee doesn’t have to look back to know it’s Donghun—something about the warmth, the firm grip—but Junhee glances over his shoulder anyway. Donghun is grinning at him, a beautiful smile even in the dim light, and Junhee grins back. He squeezes Donghun’s hand so gently, wanting that pressure to tell Donghun everything he can’t say.

The lights go up. Just as practiced. And right before Junhee takes a step, Donghun squeezes his hand back.

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