The Seventeenth Hallyu Games is finally Jongin's turn. District Six stays silent when the MC calls for him. No one screams his name or cries, and maybe he disappoints them a little by walking to the stage on his own two feet, like any other person. His departure has been five years coming, and five years is a long time to say goodbye.
It's tradition that the male trainee is selected before the female trainee. The coordinators are quick to usher Jongin away, so he doesn't get to say goodbye to Haerim, this year's District Six female. Even though he hadn't known her well, and even though it'd only be a memento mori from one sacrifice to another, he still tries to teleport to her from the top floor of the capitol building, where he watches her selection through the window. He doesn't expect it to work, so he's not disappointed when it doesn't. Blockers on the other side of the door, probably. If nothing else, the Museum excels at keeping all of its trainees under careful, scrupulous control.
In another world, or another time, if he was someone else, born rich and a part of the Museum maybe, Jongin might have a grudging appreciation for the time and effort they must have spent researching him. Blockers don't work on some of the other abilities: time control, matter manipulation, or even some forms of mind control. They must have known not just about him but also the specifics.
Jongin's not that person, though, and he's not in that world. He's in this world, in this life, and this is his quick, flashy descent to the end.
"May our stars help you keep the faith" has been the motto of the Hallyu Games since as far as Jongin can remember. Growing up, the motto was a joke to Jongin and his friends. No one strives to be a trainee in the Games, and it's a lucky few of the debuts who manage to even make a life for themselves when they finally retire to their districts after winning. Now, trapped by the pristine glass of the capitol building and the blockers outside his door, his eyes closed against the image of Haerim on stage, Jongin thinks he finally gets it. The Games don't make the stars; they destroy them. For the next few days, Jongin and eleven other boys will be counting down until the end. They are dying stars, they are supernovae. They'll briefly outshine the entire Town, and the darkness that settles in afterwards is the faith the people are supposed to keep.
Jongin was twelve when he first felt it, the tug of disappearance and reappearance that lets him teleport. He'd been playing a game of pick-up after school with Taemin, and at first he thought he had finally learned how to move and dribble at the same time, his movements untouched as he snatched the ball, turned away from Taemin's desperately flapping hands, stormed towards the hoop. Only after Taemin screeched Kkamjong, how long have you been--?! did Jongin realize he hadn't been dribbling at all. He'd been moving, flashing, from courtside to courtside, ball never leaving his hand.
Others might tell you their powers came like the rapid crawl of puberty: hints like wet dreams, the first accidental onslaught, at first too unadulterated to control, gradually settling into manageable, everyday pieces. The resulting powers were, honestly, temperamental at best. Many of them were close to worthless. Taemin who got his – probability manipulation – a year after Jongin used to joke that it only ever helped him guess right answers on multiple choice tests. Oh, and once landed him in a tool shed sucking face with the ugliest girl in his class.
But Jongin's ability came to him fully formed, ready to do his bidding, and it never lost its potency. Just weeks after the basketball game, Jongin could flash from his house to the school, from the school to the factories, from anywhere to anywhere in District Six he wanted. In the dead of night, when no one was watching, not even the coordinators who patrolled the area, he even briefly flashed out of District Six to the wind farms of District Five, the sound of the massive blades like wings whipping in the air behind him. No teleporter in their district, maybe ever in the Town, had managed to do that.
He was blessed, sure, but his powers also marked him as an eventual sacrifice for the Games. Everyone knew his powers. He was an obvious candidate. It was on everyone's tongues that he was going to be the youngest trainee from their district, maybe even the first to debut.
Two years later, Taemin debuts -- the youngest from their district, the first to survive.
And for three years after that, Jongin would watch Taemin board the private train headed for the Museum, his arm slung protectively around the shoulders of the new District Six trainee. Again, and again, and again, Taemin would come back to District Six alone, fragile and sharp as he pushes bravely through the crowd to find the mourning parents. Again, and again, and again, Jongin would wonder what he did wrong, why they didn't think he was ready, and when it would be his chance.
But this year, Jongin doesn't have to watch. Taemin is standing by the doors to the train compartment. He opens his arms, his face torn between laughing and sorrow, and Jongin goes to him.
In the official language of the Town, "hallyu" means "sacred wave", but the etymology points to a much older expression, meaning "to harvest during the spring" and, more crudely, "to cull".
This, like most decisions made by the Museum, is not a coincidence. Only children between the ages of eleven and eighteen who display powers are in the lottery to be trainees. The Museum line is that it makes for better games, but it's common knowledge that the Hallyu Games are designed to control the spread of powers through the districts. One slip for each year you display powers. If you're the only one from your district, tough. Some claim the lottery is rigged to catch the kids who display the most dangerous powers, the ones that manifest the strongest. Jongin used to think that too, until the Thirteenth Games.
The First Games were set up to have only one debut. Since then, the rules have been relaxed and never set in stone. Solo debuts are okay, groups are encouraged, and it's up to each trainee how they want to conduct themselves. Taemin's year, for instance, debuted five. Part of the promise of the Games is that no one has to die. It's not technically against the rules to draw a batch of trainees who refuse to kill anyone, but, well. Look what happened to the '05 line is what everyone would tell you, if anyone ever talked about them anymore.
Being a trainee marks the end of anyone's life in their district. If you manage to survive, a swing around all twelve districts for the Debut Tour, then years of training as the Museum grooms you for an occupation. It's a good thing if you like the fellow debuts from your line, because as far as Jongin can tell, they're your closest family from then on. Your real family back in the districts gets a steady pension plan until your death, then nothing, not even your remains.
If you die, they send you back in a glamorous box just large enough to hold your ashes. The box is plated in gold and is probably the most expensive thing the families of most of the former trainees own. If sold and melted down for raw gold, a single box could probably feed a District Six family like Jongin's for the rest of their lives. Only there's no market for them, of course. No one in the districts has the money, and the Museum doesn't care about the trainees who fail.
Jongin stays with Taemin in his penthouse apartment on the Museum campus. "Part of my mentor duties," Taemin says, "but I would have done it anyway. The Museum can be a little overwhelming when you first arrive." He gives Jongin's shoulder a squeeze. "It's nice to have something from home."
In Taemin's apartment, Jongin feels like, maybe is, the only thing from home. Everything is too clean and too untouched. Taemin has been here for three years, but everything looks like it's newly bought, from the vase of freshly cut flowers on the table ("Not me," Taemin snorts, "my housekeeper thinks they make the place look more adult --") to the enormous television set in the living room to the sofas, pristine white leather that look like they've never been touched by weight. Jongin's family makes most of their own chairs, straight backs and simple blocks, hewn by hands and no one is the same as the other. Taemin's apartment is full of curves, machine-made touches, almost alien.
"It's--" like a prison, Jongin wants to say. But instead he finishes, "-- really nice," and Taemin rewards him with a smile, an arm pressed lightly to the small of Jongin's back.
"You've grown," murmurs Taemin. "So adult. Like a different person."
"So are you," Jongin tells him. It comes out more truthful than he means to. Taemin hums, the meaning not lost on him, and turns Jongin around to face him. The look he gives Jongin is searching, almost painful. Right as Jongin is thinking of giving in and looking away, Taemin breaks into a hesitant smile.
"You still kind of look like me though. Like a cousin or a brother."
"We are brothers," Jongin insists. "I think of you just like I think of my older sisters," which makes Taemin laugh, like Jongin knew it would, and Jongin thinks, relieved, there's at least one other thing that's from District Six now.
Taemin shows him into the guest bedroom. Jongin has no bags no waiting for him. Trainees don't bring anything with them, just their bodies, which is, in a way, baggage enough. There is already a closet full of clothes in Jongin's size though. "Yours?" Jongin asks as he thumbs through them -- shirts with golden fringes, jackets with studs and metallic patches like skin diseased by diamonds, pants with sags of fabric in strange places, the occasional plain black or white shirt. A shelf of shoes, a display hung with bracelets and necklaces, a tree of hats, all in the Museum style, bold and flashy, designed to catch the light and almost move on their own. They are so new Jongin thinks he is ruining them just by touching.
Taemin shakes his head. "The Museum," he says simply, and it might be the cooling system kicking in, but Jongin feels a shiver run down his spine. He walks over to the accessories and picks up a metal cuff, weighs it. It's heavy in his palm, and far from comforting. He puts it on anyway. When he looks up, Taemin is watching him carefully. Jongin wants to ask him, are you here to help me or to keep an eye on me? But the cuff bites against his wrist, a reminder of where he is and why.
They have an early morning, so Taemin tells him to sleep. Taemin's shower has five different taps. Jongin presses them at random until he gets water so scalding it turns his skin an angry red. He scrubs his nails, his face. He imagines the dirt running off of him, down the drain, into the purifying system, being carted off and incinerated with the rest of the Museum waste. There is a metaphor in that image, but he's too exhausted to pick it out.
Even in the water, the metal cuff is cold against his skin.
The only sound in Taemin's apartment is the soft whirr of the central air system. It's so quiet that Jongin can't sleep. When he throws his arm out for the glass of water on the bedstand, he hits a button hidden by the alarm clock, and one of the walls comes to life, showing him the Museum campus laid out in all its night-time glory. He bolts out of his bed, stands by the wall, terrified despite himself, and it takes him a while to convince his own eyes that he's not going to swan dive into the bright lights, that this is just a television the size of the wall.
When his fingertips touch the screen, the image changes. He taps; the ocean appears, bright blue, lapping against sands as white as Taemin's untouched couch. Taps, again: the woods, a creek somewhere nearby, the brush of wings against lower branches. His middle finger summons the meadows, his ring finger the desert. The images are so real they have to be fake.
Eventually Jongin settles on one of a summer thunderstorm. It sounds closest to the way District Six rumbles at night -- trains passing, the factories moving sluggishly on the midnight shift, somewhere someone dragging a useless piece of hovercraft wing into the scrapheap for the morning disposal. This is District Six's heartbeat, plodding through the night, and it is as familiar to Jongin as the sound of his own. Without it, the room feels empty, dead. Like sleeping in a mausoleum.
Distantly, the rolling cough of synthetic thunder, followed by the tinny sound of recorded rain. Jongin closes his eyes, tired. At first, he can't fall asleep.
Then, he dreams of drowning.
Trainees, it turns out, undergo a strict regimen of public relations makeovers before they're seen by anyone but the Game managers.
"You have an official training period in a week or so," Taemin explains, tapping Jongin's arm rhythmically as they're driven to what Taemin calls the studio. "But by that time everything you do is recorded and viewed by the sponsors. So you'll want to look your best."
Jongin glances at his own reflection in the car window. His hair is carefully washed and brushed, still damp, and his face still stings from his morning shower. In a plain button down black shirt and white pants lined at the seams with metallic rings, he doesn't look like a Museum resident, but he also doesn't look like the scruffy, slightly dusty eighteen-year-old in his dad's roughed up jeans he was yesterday. The cuff around his wrist glitters in the dim early morning light, cold and sharp. "I look fine," he says dubiously, brushing his hair out of his eyes.
"You always look good to me, Kkamjong," Taemin jokes. "But the Museum has high standards."
"Surprised they wanted you, then," Jongin says, grinning. They're at the studio now, a nondescript grey building with the Museum logo -- SM, in styled cursive letters, white against a discomfiting shade of pink -- adorning the doors. Taemin delivers him into the hands of a whole team of managers, who make him strip, examine him from head to toe, and makes him shower, the second time that morning. They pluck his eyebrows, wax his legs, shape his nails, clean off his already tender skin until he's raw and burning. There's an hour spent discussing what color they should dye his hair. The team that advocates for a darker brown -- "cool chestnut brown", one of them says with an exasperated roll of her eyes when Jongin asks for the third time -- wins in the end. They curl the edges with metal tongs that Jongin would have sworn are torture devices. "We'll style it more after you start training," they promise, as if he'd asked.
Then endless hours while they apply powders, glitters, and creams to Jongin's face, trying out everything. Shimmer along his cheekbones, a pencil along his eyelids, so many lip glosses Jongin's mouth goes numb. "Wait a few years and we'll fix that nose," they purr. "Then you really will be perfect." They show him the mirror after each minute change and Jongin says the same thing to each look, it's good, thank you. He's offered water a few times, and they let him use the bathroom when he asks. A coordinator follows him all the way to the door of the bathroom stall and leads him back just as wordlessly.
"You have amazing angles," the makeup managers coo. "Like a doll."
He is a doll. This is the closest thing he has to describing the next few days. His limbs belong to someone else. The Museum and its relentless schedule is his puppeteer. Taemin wakes him up in the morning before sunrise and lets him sleep in the car all the way to the studio, shakes him awake when they arrive. Jongin is boneless while they tell him how to stand and when to smile and what to say. "Say more, say it more graciously," they'll say, and "that's good, that energy," and "I like your sass, but watch it, that's too much," and Jongin would scream if he had the voice left to do it. He feels like an animal being raised for slaughter, only they rarely remember to let him eat. He sleepwalks through their lectures on how to behave, which makes him docile and just what they want.
He goes home every night and turns on the thunderstorm. His sleep is dreamless, and it's like being shot in the head.
On the fifth day there's a break in the usual programming. Something's gone off on the schedule, but no one tells Jongin anything, and he ends up waiting in a break room for an hour before he gets fed up. The coordinator that's usually guarding him has been called away, so there's no one to stop Jongin when he starts to wander the hallways.
Most of the rooms are echoes of what he's already seen: mock classrooms, some with recording equipment so the trainee can see himself speaking or standing, reclining chairs and mirrors with side lights for makeup. Eventually, though, Jongin opens the door to a room that is three-fourths mirrors. The ceiling is a skylight -- the only one in the building, the only window in the building as far as Jongin knows -- and the natural light is punctuated with swirling dust, the smell of wood polish, sweat. Clumped in one corner are portable barres, boomboxes, and strangely, a pair of discarded sneakers with the name OH SEHUN penned in painstaking block letters along the heels.
Before he had his powers, Jongin was known for dancing. He's always had a lithe body, one that could unfurl and snap and bend almost inhumanely. And a sense of rhythm, when to time a step so it would be the most fluid, the most sharp. No one had been surprised that Jongin's power involved movement; it seemed so much a part of him already. He was the one chosen at the yearly celebrations to represent his school, the one at festivals who took the center stage for the ceremonial dances.
His manager finds him an hour later with his arms raised, fingers playing a melody only he can hear, counting the beats out loud, the metal cuff clicking inaudibly against the bone of his wrist. His hair is a tangled mess and his makeup has almost sweated off, leaving streaks of black and tan on the towel that his manager offers him. He's panting, too high on the exertion to feel the strain on his muscles. The manager smiles at him, really smiles at him, and for the first time in a week Jongin feels like she seems as a human being, not a machine wound up for their molding.
"Water?" she asks.
"Please," he says. He gingerly flexes his foot, groans from the pleasant ache. While Jongin stretches, she leaves the room for a few minutes and comes back with a bottle of water. She waits at the doorway, and Jongin goes to her.
"Don't worry," she finally says. Jongin senses that she's laughing, but her face is still blank, unreadable. "No one's going to reprimand you."
She leads him back into a break room. Jongin collapses immediately on the bench. He shouldn't be this tired, but after days of no physical activity, his body isn't used to an hour of straight movement. It makes him angry. This is how they kill you, he reminds himself, first by overwhelming, then by a false sense of inanity.
"Jongin," his manager says, clicking her tongue, "you know the Debut Stage is only part of the Games. The rest is all in how you present yourself, and there are a lot of ways of appealing to an audience."
He nods. She nods back, searching his expression. She looks only a few years older than Jongin himself, but in the Museum, all looks are deceiving. In the face of her relentless gaze, he feels all eighteen of his years and he knows they aren't enough. She is trying to tell him something, but he can't grasp it. Museum-speak, double-speak, he wants to growl at her, just out with it.
She clears her throat and leans back in her chair. "How do you feel about dancing?"
Sweat drips off his temples, down his neck. It's pleasant, but it makes him feel vulnerably human. He wants to be a machine again, to be told what's next. But this is what being a trainee will be like, a voice that sounds like Taemin's whispers in his head. People wanting to know, probing, asking, your business their business, everyone's business. Always on stage. Always needing an answer, and always needing the right one.
"Well?" she prompts.
"It feels good to perform," he says slowly. He closes his eyes, trying to concentrate. "When I'm dancing, I imagine I'm on stage, and it feels like being alive."
"That's good," she mutters, almost to herself. She takes out a notepad, jots down what Jongin can see are the words, dancing -- alive -- stage. "You should say that for your interview."
"Say what, exactly?"
"Something like, hmm," the coordinator considers, pauses, then grins. "Something like, 'I only feel alive when I'm on the stage.'"
The twist she's given his words and the loaded meaning of "on the Stage" makes Jongin smile back at her. He wonders how many trainees this woman has seen, if Jongin is one of the first or one of a long string. If this manager even laughs at irony like that anymore, or if she's so jaded she's become sincere.
Still, dancing feels good. Feels wonderful, really -- getting to move his body, twist it and send it shooting it out but reeling it back at the last minute so he doesn't teleport off. His manager lets him back into the mirrored room, even plays him some music. "Don't overdo it," she warns him, but the sound of the door closing behind her is soft, almost encouraging. He is closed in on three sides by pristine glass, by his own reflection. It is a safe kind of suffocation, and for once he doesn't even think about what's coming. Just thinks about the next small step, and the next, and the next.
Jongin leaves the studios so late that night he's worried Taemin will have called the Museum coordinators to look for his body. When he gets to Taemin's apartment, though, Taemin's not even home. Jongin gets himself a glass of orange juice, takes a shower, rummages through Taemin's video game collection waiting for Taemin to get home.
By two o'clock, Jongin is so frustrated even Call of Duty can't hold his attention. What makes it worse is that he doesn't even know what to do. He could call for someone -- but whom? He doesn't know anyone's number. Taemin and his manager handle everything, where he goes and when and with whom. He could search the campus for Taemin or the car, but on foot, how far could he go? He doesn't even know the streets. Each ride to and from the studio is a blur of Taemin's shoulder under his head, the hazy comfort of having five stolen minutes of sleep.
Just as Jongin is throwing on his jacket and getting ready to leave the house, damn the consequences, Taemin throws open the door. In the brief moment between the first snap of the door and Jongin throwing the lights back on, Taemin's eyes are wild in the dark, like something hunted. Jongin feel his heart leap into his mouth, and he's frightened into flashing to a spot right by the dining room table, just out of Taemin's reach.
By the time Taemin has slipped off his shoes, though, there's no trace of that left. Jongin licks his lips and manages to ask, "What's going on?" His voice is pitched normally, and except for the slightly quizzical look Taemin throws in Jongin's direction, his teleportation passes without comment.
"Nothing," says Taemin, throwing his jacket onto the couch with a sigh. Then, apologetically, "The taxi had to take detours to lose some sasaengs."
Jongin pauses. "The dog robots?"
"No, they're just fans. I shouldn't have taught you that word. It's not Museum-approved. Only the debuts use it with each other."
"Why do you call them sasaengs?"
Taemin laughs. It's slightly embarrassed and sounds almost real. Almost. "Oh, well, you know how sasaengs were originally tracker dogs. The fans are the same way. They track you everywhere." He shakes his hair, as if trying to throw away some thought, then runs his hands through it for good measure. Jongin can't help smiling at that. The gel the makeup team puts in Jongin's hair is like a helmet. At first he would run his hands through it to loosen it up, but that was before they lectured him out of the habit. You have to get used to it, they tell him.
He doesn't say, When I get to the Debut Stage, I won't be wearing it. He did when he still thought it would shock them. He's gotten over that now.
Jongin settles down half-heartedly to his video game, but he keeps one eye on Taemin as he moves across the room, past the dining room table, to the kitchen. "How do they get your information?"
Taemin shrugs, getting a bottle of water out of the refrigerator. The sound of the cap snapping is oddly brutal. "Stalking. Careful observation. Sometimes they get the staff to tell them. The Museum crowd is really into the life of the debuts, you know. You trainees are lucky. The Museum does its best to keep you under wraps."
Only because they don't want us dying off-stage. But this is another thought Jongin keeps to himself. It passes between the two of them, silent. Taemin coughs lightly and settles down next to Jongin, watching Jongin's process. He picks at his nails absently. "Yoochun says he has proof the Museum leaks our schedule," he continues. "But he hasn't been able to do anything with it. I mean, he is part of the '03 line."
"What does that have anything to do with it?"
"Oh, another one of the '03 line lost it with a sasaeng a year ago. Beat the girl bloody. They couldn't even recognize her face." Taemin narrows his eyes. "Well, what did the Museum expect? It's not like they don't know what Jaejoong was capable of. He was a debut after all. But they cut him off, and Yoochun's still upset about it."
"Cut him off?"
"Yeah. They retired him from public appearances and mentoring duties." Taemin takes a thoughtful chug of water, then frowns as Jongin eviscerates another player with a clean headshot. "Come to think of it, no one has seen him since."
If Jongin was twelve again, and Taemin thirteen, and if they were back on the basketball courts behind their school, playing pick-up, Jongin might have said, This is how they destroy us -- if they don't kill us with the Games, they'll kill us some other way. He might have grabbed Taemin's hand, transported them somewhere else -- the roof, maybe, or the street, or even all the way back to District Six.
But they are not the same people they used to be on the basketball court. Taemin is eighteen now, a debut, a star, and he knows the Museum games better than Jongin does. Jongin remembers every televised minute of the Thirteenth Games. He spent the spring of '08 glued to the screen, scanning for Taemin. He still remembers Taemin's last kill -- surprisingly low-tech, no powers involved, drugging a sleeping trainee and tying him to a tree, letting the sasaengs that prowled in the early mornings take care of the rest. Remembers, vividly, the tight focus of the cameras on the boy's face as he got eaten alive. And when that was over, how the camera panned up to the point where the boy was staring: Taemin, crouched on an overhanging tree branch, waiting. Remembers, vividly, the mindless, blank smile on Taemin's face, when the screaming finally stopped.
Jealousy is a funny thing. Jongin used to spend sleepless nights asking himself, why wasn't I selected? Fast on the heels of that, why do I want to die so badly? But it was not about death, it was not about wanting to be Taemin. Jongin hates the Games, hates the system, hates knowing that even winning isn't really winning. District Six gives you a hard life, but at least it was his. Whatever illusions of control Jongin had over his life were ripped away from him when he stepped on the train headed towards the Museum.
Jongin had watched Taemin's graduation ceremony from the tiny cramped living room of the Kim house. President Lee went down the line, pinning a little metal badge with their stage name and year on their jackets. Taemin was the last of the five. "You are the stars of a shining world," President Lee had said at the end, his smile not reaching his eyes. "A world where people come together, celebrate and support each other. To those who think we can't have brightness in the world, you prove them wrong."
This is the world that was waiting for the rest of the '08 line as they stood, blinking into the floodlights: one of them a social scorpion in a garden of social butterflies, successful at sleeping with every man and woman in the upper levels of the Museum. One of them lost in the recesses of the Museum to a mental breakdown, moving from unknown rehab centers to unknown retreats. One of them a goodwill ambassador, an open supporter of the Games, reluctant to admit the district in which he was born. One of them a drug abuser, an alcoholic, a movie star too broken to give one-on-one interviews and too dangerous to leave alone. And Taemin, at eighteen, just old enough to begin the process of breaking down into something the Museum can control. Plucked, brushed, dragged, pushed, threatened, stripped, coached, trained, beat. Suppression, submission, sublimation. Trying to manage, trying to get by.
This is the world that is waiting for Jongin, if he escapes death. It's nothing to look forward to.
But Jongin was chosen by his power at twelve, and he's been waiting since then. He was the strongest from their district. He was born for this. For six years life crawled by, day by day, moment by moment. Maybe, to a boy who never had to walk, who could cross distances in a single blink, that kind of life was too slow. And maybe he had lived too fast. Maybe, now, his punishment is finally catching up to him.
The first thing Jongin thinks when he meets the other eleven trainees is, I can win this.
Then, grudgingly, not without some help. Lined up in order of district, Jongin is sandwiched between District Five, who is slightly shorter and shockingly good looking, and District Seven, who is slightly taller with a face that's lifted straight from a woodcut, sharp chin and hooded eyes. District Four looks so clean and well-mannered Jongin is a little afraid for him. He can count out District Three, he thinks, unless the trainee has a really good power up his sleeve. Like always, District One is tall and appropriately athletic, the classic career trainee, but it turns out this year District Twelve is the tallest. The further the districts get from the Museum campus, the less food is available -- Jongin didn't even know that District Twelve made boys that tall with their limited resources.
Compared to them, Jongin wonders, what are his odds? The best thing to do, Taemin had said the night before, is to pick the most versatile trainees to debut with you. Don't pick the ones who only have their personality, and don't pick the ones that only have their powers. Better an average power with a winning smile.
Which is good advice, but Jongin ends up spending most of the introductory speech staring at the trainee from District Eight, his head tilted slightly forward so he can look around District Seven. District Eight has a slight frame, a pleasant face, eyelashes long enough they almost catch the light, and a thin smooth neck like a bird. Jongin's fascinated by all sorts of things about Eight: that they've dressed him in the white and silver version of Jongin's black and gold fringed tank, that the two of them flanking Seven look like complimentary chess pieces, that Eight is almost feminine as he stares up, eyes unblinking, that Eight's arms seize up in shockingly solid muscles when Eight squeezes his hands into fists at his side. So many contradictions, Jongin muses, in Eight's delicate face and back tensed up like a bowstring. Would this one have only a brute strength belied by his good looks? Would he be versatile? Is he one of the odds Jongin prayed and begged and waited for, or one of the odds that would work against Jongin in the end?
He almost yelps when a sharp elbow jabs him in his ribs. When Jongin turns to glare at the owner of the elbow -- District Five, on his right -- the boy grins back, unapologetic. "Pay attention," District Five mutters. "Eight's going to have a hole in his face if you keep going."
Five's lisp takes Jongin by surprise. For a brief second, he wonders why they didn't train it out of him and, absently, if it was going to hurt the boy's chances. If there was a matrix the sponsors all checked off, would this give Jongin an advantage? And was this how he was going to spend the next and last few days of his life, thinking constantly of the human beings around him as mere collections of traits? Five lifts his shoulders as if to say, well? and Jongin shrugs back. "No harm in looking," Jongin whispers, trying to keep his voice nonchalant.
"Plenty of time for sizing each other up later."
"No harm in a head start."
"Yeah, if you need it," District Five whispers back.
For a minute, Jongin is actually irritated. He thinks about flashing around to face District Five, throwing a punch into that well-formed nose, flashing back quickly enough that the hammy manager up on the lectern won't even realize Jongin left his position in line. Then, without warning, Jongin feels like laughing. District Five, he realizes, would have had to have been watching him to have caught Jongin staring at District Eight.
"My name's Jongin," he mutters. The speech has ended and all the trainees are clapping. In the noise, Jongin almost loses Five's response.
Five knocks his shoulder casually against Jongin, as if on accident. He's almost turned his back on Jongin when he finally says, "Sehun. Nice to meet you."
Jongin inhales, sharp, his eyes darting down to Sehun's shoes. But of course they are new ones, black from top to the sole, unmarked. Maybe it was just a name. Maybe in Five, it was even a common name. Maybe Jongin had remembered wrong, maybe it wasn't Sehun written on the heels after, but Sehan or Sehyun or -- and yet --
Is this one of the odds I waited for?
"Nice to meet you," Jongin says.
He means it.
"By the time you're in official training, everything you do is recorded and viewed by the sponsors," Taemin had said, but Jongin didn't realize how. They are housed in dorms, two to a room. Jongin's roommate ends up being wide-eyed Kyungsoo, Two's trainee, who stops Jongin before he enters the room. With a finger on his lips, the two of them hidden in the shadows of the door frame, Kyungsoo points to the upper-left hand corner, the mirror above the wardrobe, the post of each of their beds, the wall socket. He touches the corner of his eye and the corner of his mouth, before saying loudly, "Nice to meet you. I'm Kyungsoo."
Kyungsoo's grip is firm. So is Jongin's understanding of his bizarre actions -- we're being watched and heard.
"Let's work hard," Jongin says, squeezing Kyungsoo's hand twice, and Kyungsoo's smile is relieved, or maybe victorious, or maybe both.
They get two weeks of physical training. "So you can get to know each other better," the managers say, enthusiastic. "And also so we can get to know you better."
What they mean is this: one side of their gym is a one-way window, and the trainees are not on the right side. The dorm hallways, the rooms, the common areas, and the canteen are all watched by cameras 24/7. Their speech lessons continue, except they're held in what can only be described as a human aquarium, and a different crowd of Museum residents watch them every day. They get lessons in edible fruits and nuts, in how to hunt, in how to start a fire or purify water, and every trap or basket or dam they make is scrutinized by managers walking around with clipboards.
"You think they watch us in the bathrooms too?" Sehun murmurs as both of them are bent over a makeshift sundial.
"I think the makeup team bugged my hair this morning," Jongin complains, and Sehun laughs.
It'd be so much easier, Jongin thinks, if he could hate the other trainees more. But he's fallen into routine with Sehun, like old friends, and Jongin even tells him about the one time he visited District Five, almost to be decapitated by a windmill. Sehun whips up little windstorms to wake Jongin up in the morning, when Kyungsoo has already given up. Kyungsoo himself turns out to only be observant of hidden cameras, and a day later he nearly sets both Sehun and Jongin on fire when the three of them are learning how to hide ashes.
District Four's trainee comes to Jongin on the third day. "I've heard a lot about you," he says, which is the wrong way to start the conversation, but he saves it by laughing self-deprecatingly. "That's a lie," he admits. "I've just been watching."
"I don't mind," Jongin tells him. "I have been too."
He has been. Four -- Joonmyun -- can summon water, which on the Debut Stage is nothing to discount. He's a favorite of the management too, mild-mannered and an adult, the only one of the group to volunteer instead of being selected. "Why?" Jongin asks him as they spar, Jongin flashing from side to side to avoid Joonmyun's kicks, but Joonmyun only shrugs, says, "It was my time," as if that was an answer. It sounds like one when Joonmyun says it, and that, Jongin admits, is a kind of power too.
Then: Kyungsoo befriending Chanyeol from District One, and Chanyeol introducing Baekhyun from District Three. Jongin should be more surprised that the inner districts would band together so easily, but he isn't. The further from the Museum, the less culturalization had taken place. It's obvious as they spend more time together. Eleven and Nine don't even speak the same dialect as the rest of them, Seven either had a speech impediment or just didn't like talking to anyone who wasn't Eleven or Twelve, and Twelve himself is painted all over with the air of a martyr, a man so wronged by his circumstance he's untouchable. He didn't need another reason to not trust the other districts. District Twelve, the loser district, the only one to not have a mentor. Or, well, a living one anyway.
By the end of the week, Joonmyun ventures, "Six is a good number." He casts a brief glance at the other side of the canteen and the other trainees, then turns back to Jongin with a cautious smile. "We shouldn't be worried."
Six is a fine number, Jongin thinks, chewing on his lip. It's manageable, the six of them get along, they're versatile, just like Taemin wanted, and other than Baekhyun's slightly disappointing power -- which, Joonmyun is quick to point out, has all sorts of other uses even if it's not an offensive weapon -- they're a fine team. Jongin's the one the Museum crowds stare at the most, Joonmyun's the one the management is sweetest on, Kyungsoo can recite the history of the Games like a mantra, and there's always Chanyeol -- trainees with control over fire have historically had the best success rate.
Yet Jongin finds himself staring at Eight from across the canteen, at Lu Han, who's currently eating noodles and gesturing at the tall trainee from Twelve with his chopsticks. He's thinking of Lu Han, laughing as Ten throws weight after weight at him, and of the way Lu Han held the weights in a lazy orbit around him, his fingers twitching as he draws them closer or pushes them away. He's thinking of the way Lu Han had looked across the gym at Jongin as the laugh died out, as he does now in the canteen, head popping up, noticing Jongin noticing him. He's thinking of the two of them on other sides of Seven, two opposites, and yet. Thinking, as their eyes held, these are the odds I waited for.
After lunch, Seven and Twelve corner him in the bathroom. Jongin comes out of his stall to Twelve leaning against the sink, idly turning the water on and off as he keeps his eyes trained on Jongin, and Seven nervously wiping his palms on his pants.
"Am I interrupting?" Jongin asks. He goes over to the sink furthest from Twelve and begins running the water. There's a strict no fighting rule -- besides sparring in the gym, of course -- and even if they wanted to touch him, Jongin could always teleport out of the bathroom. Of course, he's not entirely sure what Seven's power is. Better to play it safe and hear them out, Jongin thinks. Satisfied, he begins to wash his hands.
"I'm not sure if we've met," Twelve says. "I'm Wu Fan. From District Twelve."
"Jongin, from Six."
Wu Fan nods as if to say, I know. "This is Zitao from Seven."
"Sorry it took us this long to make introductions," Jongin says. He winces when he hears himself, the way the words curl with sarcasm. If they were looking to be diplomatic, Jongin gripes, they should have gone to Joonmyun. Jongin was the one who drew others with his face; it was Joonmyun who was good with words.
"Lu Han said he was going to talk to you," Wu Fan says, unperturbed.
"Talk to me about what?"
"About the plan for the Debut Stage."
"You must be mistaken," Jongin says mildly. "You must be looking for Joonmyun. The trainee from District Four."
Zitao makes a little motion as if he's trying to run away, but Wu Fan glances at him, one hand twitching up as if to say, hold on. "He must just not have had the opportunity. But it's fine. We can explain."
"Explain, then," Jongin says. He wipes his hands, leans against the sink just as Wu Fan is, and watches the two of them from behind half-lidded eyes. The two from the outer districts exchange looks, and Wu Fan shakes his head, just slightly. Zitao clears his throat.
"We think it'd be better for all of us to try to debut together."
Jongin laughs. "You're kidding."
Zitao turns back to Wu Fan as if confused, but, reading nothing on Wu Fan's face, he turns back to Jongin. "No, we're not. Why would we be?"
Jongin raises his eyebrow, looking over Zitao at Wu Fan, who merely blinks back at Jongin, unmoved. "And you and Twelve thought this up?" he asks.
"And the others," Zitao says defensively.
"Right," Jongin declares, voice flat. "I have other things to do, if you don't mind --" He tries to flash out of the bathroom, but without warning, everything around him turns leaden. He feels trapped by the very air. Terrified, he tries again, but he blinks and when he comes to, he finds himself caught by Zitao's hand, firm on his wrist.
"Nice trick," Jongin admits.
Wu Fan nods. "Zitao's power is time control."
He doesn't tell Zitao to let go. Zitao's grip on Jongin's wrist is solid, not painful, but hard to escape all the same. Sighing, Jongin leans his hip back on the sink. He meets Zitao's dark and oddly childish eyes and manages a smile. "Let me tell you a story," Jongin says, trying his best to sound pleasant. "The tenth round of the Games debuted twelve people. All twelve. After three days of fighting, the trainees banded together and held a hunger strike that lasted for ten days until the Museum management finally agreed to debut them as a group."
"Everyone knows this story," Zitao interjects.
"Oh? Then you tell me how it ends."
"They debuted as a group. The first time all twelve districts were winners."
Jongin scoffs. He starts to pry Zitao's fingers away from his wrist, waits to see if there are any consequences. When there isn't, he flashes just out of Zitao's reach. Then, a little closer to the door, away from Wu Fan. "Sounds nice, doesn't it? But a year later, for the eleventh round of Games, the Museum didn't even bother selecting trainees. Instead, it made all twelve of the '05 line fight each other again. Fitted them with collars that would blow up one trainee per 24 hours if no one was killed. Tortured them with sleep deprivation, salt water, extreme temperatures. Didn't let sponsors send them food or weapons or anything. Only the trainee from District Twelve survived, and he was stoned to death on his second debut tour by residents of Two. So don't give me this shit about solidarity. You want solidarity? You can have it --" he glances back at Wu Fan, "when we're all dead."
"Han Geng's story is unfortunate," Wu Fan says. "But it's a warning, not a death sentence."
"Oh yeah? How do you figure?"
"The Super Juniors were crowd favorites. There was unrest that year after their deaths. Rumors of riots in Ten and Eight. It made the Museum think twice."
"Yeah, but the '07 line still only produced one debut."
"The girls' Games that year produced nine."
"Go join their games then."
For the first time during the conversation, Wu Fan's eyes light up. Jongin can't tell if it's anger or interest; it looks dangerous all the same. Zitao, too, hunches his shoulders, as if he's just waiting for Wu Fan's orders to pounce. Jongin tenses to leave, but Wu Fan doesn't make a move in his direction. Instead, he says, "Han Geng's story just tells us we have to stick together, even after the Games, even after we're debuts. His death wasn't his fault. It was the other districts, for fighting amongst each other. Han Geng is a hero--"
"And now Hankyung's dead. Just like everyone else from the '05 line," Jongin snaps. "That's pretty much the very definition of a death sentence."
This time, he flashes out of the bathroom, and they let him.
The next morning Jongin wakes up to Lu Han and Sehun curled on the couch in the common area, drinking coffee and laughing softly over something Jongin can't see. They don't seem to notice him as he walks to the kitchen to get some juice, and he's about to sneak back into his room when Sehun calls out to him, beckoning with one hand. "Lu Han can solve a Rubik's cube in under a minute," Sehun says, eyes trained on Lu Han's hands. "I've been timing him."
"Don't get his hopes up," Lu Han chides. "I've only done it once under a minute so far."
"Still," grumbles Sehun, "it's pretty impressive."
Sehun has his long limbs sprawled all over one side of the couch, as usual, so Jongin perches on the armrest closest to Lu Han. Lu Han's fingers -- as skinny and elegant as the rest of him -- twist the multi-colored blocks with deft little flicks. The sound is like an insect clicking its legs or, unnervingly, someone checking their ammunition. Occasionally Sehun brushes Lu Han's elbow in encouragement, and Jongin itches in his own skin. His body is stiff, held carefully away from Lu Han's shoulder and arm so they won't touch. There's a funny taste in his mouth which can't quite be explained by the juice he's drinking or the fact that he hasn't brushed his teeth. The sound of Sehun's watch ticking as he measures the seconds rings in Jongin's ear like his heartbeat.
When Lu Han finishes, he passes the cube to Sehun, exhaling. "Fifty seconds," Sehun tells him, grinning. "Without cheating, even."
"I never cheat," Lu Han retorts.
Sehun has Lu Han's wrist grasped in one greedy hand, while his other hand turns the cube around over and over again as if looking for a flaw. But Lu Han's eyes are fixated on Jongin, unrelenting. This is the first time Jongin has been up close to Lu Han, despite a week of constant company. He doesn’t think he's been avoiding Lu Han, but all sorts of things, Jongin knows, happen without you choosing. Lu Han's eyelashes are just as long as they seemed that first day, his neck just as thin and smooth. The muscles in his arms still pulse as Sehun knits their fingers together, and there's the same sharpness of collarbone and spine as Lu Han arches towards Jongin, waiting. But there's a luminous quality to Lu Han's eyes, in the way they pin Jongin down. Jongin knows Lu Han's power, knows it isn't time control like Zitao's, but the air around him is laden with a weight only Jongin can feel.
"You're not going to congratulate me, Jongin?" Lu Han says. His voice is soft, but Jongin thinks -- imagines -- there's a demand in the way Lu Han says his name. For a wild moment, he wonders, if it had been Lu Han instead of Wu Fan and Zitao, if Lu Han had told him, let's debut as a team, if Lu Han had just said, Jongin, I have a plan, if Lu Han had found him yesterday instead of finding Sehun today --
In the Games there are many ways to win. There's brute strength (dubious), charm (helpful), outwitting the other trainees to debut solo (difficult), choosing the right group (dependable). All of this is a matter of timing. Showing the right amount of charm, befriending another trainee before someone else does, performing on camera just as a rich sponsor is in a generous mood, being the most unconventionally handsome one in a crop of trainees. Jongin's never been good with timing, always too early and too late. As he gazes down on Lu Han, silent, something like despair settles on him. He can't say why. It grounds him like an anchor back into his body and back into that moment when the MC called his name, and he had stood in front of the stage, and for the first time doubted that this was the fate he wanted after all. The heaviness of Lu Han's gaze, just like the heaviness of the thought he entertains for the first time: what if he was to die after all?
"Congratulations," murmurs Jongin. Then adds, the words bubbling up like vomit, "on not needing to cheat."