Emery had figured wearing all white for today’s comeback stage would be tempting fate, but he certainly hadn’t expected fate to show up like this.
She slammed into him, tea cascading over the side of the paper cup in her hand and splashing onto his shoes and ankle. Emery winced, not from the pain, but from the thought of damaging his $600 white jeans. His stylists would kill him. Or, no, forget the stylists—President Jo would hunt him down herself.
The girl let out a startled squeak against his chest, stumbling as she drew back. He instinctively reached out to steady her, and his hand latched onto her wrist. With an apology on the tip of his tongue, he looked down at her face just as recognition struck him with alarming clarity. It was her. Her.
Wide-eyed and pale, she looked at Emery as if he were a ghost, but she was the ghost—an apparition from Emery’s past. Memories of the summer two years ago flickered in his mind—her shy smile, the red umbrella, a silver chain—as he watched the panic growing in her familiar light brown eyes. A heartbeat later, she turned and fled without looking back.
“M! Let’s go!” called Minhyuk, Emery’s manager. “Everyone’s waiting backstage.”
Emery stood rigid, staring down the hallway in disbelief as the girl vanished around the corner. His heart pounded, its frantic rhythm echoing in his ears. He was used to pressure. He was used to the spotlight. But Emery wasn’t used to the kind of emotions now crashing through his mind, threatening to spill over.
Fate had found him in the form of a girl, but it wasn’t just any girl. It was the girl. He knew her only by the name she had mistakenly left him—A, written in a small but graceful script. He couldn’t even call it a name. As an initial, it could stand for anything—Ace, Anne, even Apple—but he wasn’t one to judge considering his own stage name was M. Either way, the simple letter A didn’t do her justice. He had pretty much stuck to calling her, well, Her in his head.
What was she even doing here? Not here as in Seoul, Korea, but rather here, at Music Now. Was he hallucinating? With less than three hours of sleep the night before, the possibility couldn’t be ruled out.
He glanced down, taking in the sizable stain on his left pant leg where her tea had spilled. This was real. His imagination wasn’t that good. There wasn’t enough time to return to the bathroom, either. Instead, he crouched down and carefully rolled up his jeans to hide the mark. Once. Twice. Checking his handiwork, he smiled.
“M, now!” Minhyuk said, throwing his arms up in exasperation as he walked towards Emery.
It would only take Emery a minute to catch up to Her. Seconds, if he followed her lead and ran. But it would have to wait, especially since his manager looked like he was preparing to physically drag Emery on stage. He’d seen Minhyuk do it to Sungil once before and definitely didn’t need to experience it himself.
“Sorry! Coming, Hyung!” Emery answered in Korean. After moving to Seoul just over five years ago when he was fifteen, he could now communicate in Korean without any major problems. It helped that he was Korean American, and had grown up speaking basic Korean with his family and friends in Los Angeles. However, he had still faced a language barrier when he first arrived in Korea, struggling with the formal intricacies of the language. It was frustrating, but after months in an immersive environment, he had achieved an acceptable level of fluency. His brain could now easily switch between English and Korean.
Emery forced a smile and met his manager at the elevator to the live studio. He tried his best to banish Her from his mind, but his thoughts were trapped, held hostage by her haunting image.
Her black hair had grown longer, reaching midway down her back in stark contrast to her pale skin. Her face was sharper than he remembered, more angular, as if she had skipped a few too many meals. But it was more than just her new physical appearance. There was something off in the way she withdrew from him, in the dark emotion that hid behind her light brown eyes.
“Everything all right, M?” Minhyuk asked, stress seeping into his otherwise easygoing tone as they stepped into the elevator. The round-faced manager put a hand on Emery’s shoulder, running his gaze up and down, looking for anything out of place.
As he faced Minhyuk, Emery glimpsed his own reflection in the elevator mirror, taking in his dyed brown hair and the blue contacts that masked his naturally dark eyes.
“Spectacular. Never better.” The elevator doors opened on the second-floor studio, his lie slipping naturally into place.
Emery caught up to the rest of his group backstage, where they were already going through their last-minute microphone and costume checks while Cocoa Pop’s cheerful high notes filled the air. Sungil and Stu were lip-syncing and dancing along, jokingly making up their own version of the girl group’s trendy choreography. Jaehyun stood with his back to Emery as a stylist sprayed his bleached blonde hair for what must have been the millionth time that day. Only Yongnam seemed to notice Emery’s entrance.
“You okay?” Yongnam mouthed, cocking an eyebrow as he looked over at Emery with mild concern.
Emery gave his leader a double thumbs-up and flashed one of the trademark smiles that made him so popular with the fans. Yongnam frowned, but didn’t say anything, and turned his attention back to the stylist adjusting the fringe on his gauzy white shirt. Emery took a deep breath, doing his best to keep his thoughts and racing heartbeat under control.
“NEON, one minute!” a staff member called.
All five members abruptly stopped what they were doing and huddled together in a tight circle, their white outfits glowing even in the dim lighting backstage. Everyone extended a hand to the center, waiting for Yongnam to lead their customary cheer.
“NEON. We are NEON. Light it up!” they chanted in unison. Emery’s heart pounded even faster. He savored the nervous thrill building in his stomach and the rush of energy cascading through his fingertips as he took his mic from a waiting staff member. He briefly touched his necklace for luck, anxious to be back on stage in front of his fans.
In the background, Cocoa Pop’s song came to an end, and the girl group filed off stage. Emery politely nodded his head to each of the seven girls as they bowed to NEON on their way out.
Emery followed his members onto the stage as fans in the audience greeted them with roaring cheers, and the studio cameras moved into position. NEON sat in a circle, back-to-back, waiting for the first of two songs to start. Emery closed his eyes, visualizing the opening choreography in his head while tapping his index finger in time to the anticipated beat.
The music began.
“Kim Yongnam. Lee Jaehyun. Jung Emery. Shin Sunwoo. Lee Sungil. NEON NEON NEON!”
Timed perfectly to the opening notes, the chants from NEON’s fandom GLO were deafening, even through Emery’s custom orange earpieces. He concealed a smirk as he slowly brought the microphone to his lips and crooned the first verse.
The endless shadows are my home.
When I’m with you, I’m still alone.
In contrast to their powerful title track, this song, “Forever Alone,” was more of a rock ballad, emphasizing the group’s dynamic voices. Emery loved it. As the group’s main vocalist, it was easily his favorite song on the new mini album.
The other members smoothly followed the song’s melody as they rose to standing. Emery stepped back from the front as Yongnam and Stu took over with their alternating rap. Stu’s fiery red hair stood out as gold light filled the studio stage, reflecting off the silver cross dangling from his ear, while Yongnam’s dark features gave him a powerful aura. Today might be their first televised stage for this comeback, but NEON had been practicing their new choreography non-stop for more than a month. The steps had already become second nature.
This was an important time for NEON. Nearly five months had passed since their last single album Clarity released, but even the shortest of breaks in the ever-changing K-pop industry could have a significant impact on their career and popularity. With the constant onslaught of new and old groups alike competing for the spotlight, it was time for NEON to reclaim their popularity. It was time for them to release new music. It was time for their comeback.
Dropping their mini album Awaken earlier today was only the beginning. Comebacks were always hectic, especially the first week of promotions. “Sleep,” “relaxation,” and “free time” disappeared from NEON’s vocabulary, while live music shows, radio broadcasts, fansigns, interviews, and special TV appearances took center stage. Every second of every day was packed to the brim. Just that morning, NEON had arrived at the TV station at 4:00 a.m. for pre-recording, excited but already exhausted. Fortunately, Emery had managed to snatch a thirty-minute nap while the stylists did his hair and makeup. Power naps were basically how he survived a comeback. Well, power naps and iced Americanos.
Emery spun through the intricate choreography, automatically stepping out of Stu’s path so Sungil could take the center position. Sungil, better known to fans by his stage name Eagle, was in his element, perfectly hitting his live notes while executing the more difficult dance moves as the song transitioned to the chorus. His sandy brown hair gleamed under the stage lights, highlighting his sharp cheekbones. While he was the youngest member of the group—the maknae—at only seventeen, Sungil shone on stage, excelling in not only dancing but singing and rapping as well.
Emery fed off the audience’s excited energy. This was the first time GLO was seeing the choreography for “Forever Alone,” and judging by the decibel of their screams, they were loving it. The sound of their chants fueled his movements, exhilarating him as his arms flowed through each controlled motion with perfect precision.
Then it was Emery’s turn again to take center stage. He stepped forward to harmonize with Jaehyun and Sungil in the chorus. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Stu holding back a smirk from the cameras as the fans went wild for Jaehyun’s lines. Of course, it might have had something to do with Jaehyun’s portion of the song falling in time to the body roll moves of their dance. Jaehyun was often considered the most attractive member in NEON, or the “visual,” a fact the eldest member wasn’t shy about at all. His hair was bleached this comeback, playing into the more mature, bad-boy image the stylists had designed for him. With the sudden burst of even more piercing cries, Emery suspected that Jaehyun had just flashed his six-pack.
Before Emery knew it, the song was over, and NEON had their backs turned to the audience. The crowd’s cheers rang in his ears as the lights faded to black, and NEON moved into place to perform their title track “Enlighten.” The pre-recorded version shot at dawn would be broadcast on TV, but they still performed for the audience in the live studio.
While Emery crouched in his starting position, a stinging pain shot through his ankle. Glancing down, he glimpsed the irritated patch of skin under the cuff of his rolled jeans, and the image of her pale, haunted face flashed briefly before his eyes.
The title track started with the distinctive thrum of the bass, forcing Emery back to the present. As their rock-inspired pop song hit its chorus, Emery belted out the high notes, doing his best to ignore the pain in his ankle and the sense that something had changed with Her.
Wake up. I need to wake up.
Enlighten me so I can—
Emery’s voice cut off as his foot slipped. Pitching forward, he stumbled into Jaehyun, nearly knocking them both over in the process. Immediately, they snapped back into step with the choreography, skillfully acting as if nothing had happened, even as the fans gasped in alarm.
Way to ruin it, Emery internally groaned.
Smiling sheepishly, he ignored his bandmates’ worried glances, and the rest of the performance finished seamlessly. As the song came to an end, a staff member stepped on stage, signaling for NEON to get into place for the final live segment of the broadcast. The award section of the show would begin right after the commercial break.
NEON was the last group to perform, having earned this coveted spot by being the most anticipated in the night’s lineup. It still didn’t feel real to Emery, that NEON was actually “popular.” Just a year before, they were still considered nobodies, nugus, more or less fighting with broadcast stations to even get the chance to perform. Now, they were seen as the leaders—the pioneers of K-pop’s new sound. He couldn’t wrap his head around how fast everything had changed.
Hoobae artists, those who debuted after NEON, bowed to Emery and the other senior, or sunbae, artists as everyone assembled on stage. More than fifteen groups had participated in the hour and a half show, and Emery quickly spotted Jaden Yang, the main dancer from HI5, and gave him a wave. Technically, HI5 was NEON’s sunbae group, since NEON had debuted a whole ten days after them. Jaden jokingly never let Emery forget this fact.
“Jaden!” Stu cried, excitedly waving his arms above his head, the long sleeves of his white silk shirt sliding past his wrists to reveal bright silver rings on each of his fingers.
“What’s up, Stuart Sunwoo Shin?” Jaden said in English. His mint green hair framed his oval face as he nodded in mock seriousness, only to dissolve into laughter at Stu’s disgruntled expression. As Stu crossed his arms and turned his back on Jaden, Emery wasn’t the only one grinning when the HI5 member playfully tackled Stu in an apology hug.
While Stu had a Korean name, he much preferred his English nickname, a fact the NEON members learned quickly in their early trainee days when Stu would lash out at anyone who called him Sunwoo. In fact, Jaden was the only one brave enough to call Stu by his full name, and for some reason, Stu let him get away with it. Originally from Taipei by way of Toronto, Jaden had grown close to both Emery and Stu as another native English speaker in the K-pop industry. Surrounded by strangers and away from home, they had bonded together for support as they adjusted to their new lives in Seoul.
Soon all the groups were on stage, and Stu broke apart from his reunion with Jaden to rejoin NEON, who had moved to the side. HI5 stood in the open spot next to Cocoa Pop in the front row. The two groups were going head-to-head as the contenders to win today’s show.
Music show winners were crowned based on a combination of album sales, online streams, internet searches of the song, and fan votes. While NEON couldn’t qualify for an award until the following week, judging from their performance on the Korean music charts so far, it looked like they would be taking home the trophy on the next Music Now broadcast.
Stu clapped Emery on the back and threw an arm around Emery’s shoulders as he waved to the crowd.
“You okay, mate?” Stu said in Emery’s ear, his Australian accent lilting his English. “You never make mistakes like that.”
“Yeah, you know,” Emery shrugged as he glanced down at Stu, who was an inch shorter, even with the lifts he wore in his shoes. “Guess I was nervous about the comeback.”
“Mate, you should have seen Jaehyun’s face when you collided. Priceless!”
“He’s okay, right?”
Before Stu could respond, the cue music began and all the artists on stage settled into place. The two idol emcees for Music Now—the glitter name tags on their mics designating them as Ginger from LilyRed and Jooyoung from Idyllic—stood in the center, facing the cameras.
“Welcome back to Music Now!” Ginger announced.
“It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Let’s check the scores for this week,” continued Jooyoung.
The numbers flashed on the screen behind the artists, dramatically tallying the points for each voting category. It looked like it was going to be a close call between Cocoa Pop and HI5.
“Cocoa Pop is currently in the lead,” remarked Jooyoung.
“Now finally adding the real-time music show voting, the winner of the third week of June is…” Ginger paused as the scores for the two groups broke even…before HI5’s continued to rise even higher, reaching a grand total of 10,629 points.
“HI5! Congratulations!” Ginger and Jooyoung announced in unison as a chorus of confetti cannon pops coated everyone with white and blue ribbons.
NEON’s cheers rivaled those of the audience when HI5’s leader Ray took the mic to say an emotional thank you to his company, staff, fans, and family for the group’s success. Jaden stepped forward to accept the Music Now trophy from the emcees.
HI5 had, until recently, been in a bit of a slump, and it had been more than a year since they had won a music show. But with member Sunghwan’s role in the new hit drama Moonlight, Again, Korea couldn’t seem to get enough of HI5. Emery was glad to see them doing well and excited that their promotions overlapped with NEON’s. It was always a relief for him to see some friendly faces to lighten the intensity of their crazy schedule.
The winning song “You, Who” began to play, and HI5 took the extra microphones from the emcees for their encore performance. While the rest of the NEON members playfully congratulated their friends in HI5, Emery’s eyes scanned over the crowd, hoping to spot A before he had to leave the stage.
Around three hundred fans stood packed into the studio. They carried lightsticks and banners, passionately promoting their favorite idol groups. Emery was happy to see that more than half of the audience held up NEON’s bright orange GLOstick. Their custom lightstick was designed by the NEON members themselves to look like a neon sign within a circular dome that lit up with a fluorescent orange letter N. Solar Entertainment had released a new version of the GLOstick at the beginning of the month to mark their three-year anniversary since debut.
As Emery turned to leave the stage, his chest filled with pride and appreciation for his fans, but he couldn’t help but also feel a hint of disappointment. As far as he could tell, there had been no sign of Her in the audience.