New year's eve, 2007.
They are warned and reassured. They are given the facts of what their lives will become within and without the Jimusho. They go into the business with their eyes open. Still, there are certain times in an idol's career - usually after a particularly difficult week filled with dance drills and concerts and television appearances and eccentric photographers - when a manager will take him aside, rest a hand on his shoulder, and say in a low voice, "We think you can be big. You can be great. But it's up to you. It's your life. It's up to you what you do with it."
The correct reply is: "I'm happy to work. I appreciate the work. I am happy right where I am, sweating to entertain."
No-one is expected to nod quietly and reach for his jacket; to say, "My limbs ache and my bones feel like lead. I've forgotten what it is to play. I don't know what it means to be normal anymore," and thank the manager for saving him from a life of ratings, media intrusions, and fleeting success.
But it crosses their minds.
Jin's hands and forehead are flat against the wall, a trio of cool points keeping him upright. He doesn't remember the last time his throat felt so dry, like his voice has browned around the edges and flaked into papery fragments.
Something cool brushes against his cheek. He turns towards it, sees the bottle first, then follows up from the hand offering it along the arm to see Kame's face.
"Here." When Jin doesn't move, Kame taps the side of his face again with the bottle, raises an eyebrow. Jin takes a hand away from the wall. To his surprise, his knees don't give way. Kame's expression softens. He unscrews the cap. "Here," he says, offering the bottle again. Jin watches Kame watch him, eyes on Jin's throat as he swallows.
"Drink it slowly," Kame chides. "It's cold. It's bad for you if you drink it too quickly. And don't drink too much, or you'll have an accident in the middle of a high note."
Jin wipes away the water that escaped his mouth. He looks down to hide his momentary amusement.
"I can hold it in."
"Akanishi," Kame says quietly. "What's-"
"It's nothing." Jin doesn't look up. He scratches at the edges of the bottle's label. His thumb traces over the two kanji written in marker on the bottle cap; one reptile, one fruit. "I'll tell you next year."
"It's Countdown. It practically is next year." Kame looks around and steps closer. "Are you going to get through this?"
Jin is surprised at Kame's concern. Kame is stressed. Has been stressed all day. The wardrobe department have been busy dismantling his costumes and fitting them back together again. Better-fitting costumes tailored to individuals (as opposed to being made to be passed down through generations of Johnnys) may look better on, but they cause headaches if anyone's weight changes. Kame's rehearsal times were disrupted numerous times by a string of extra fittings, and a stressed out Kame is not a patient Kame. KAT-TUN wasn't the only one at the receiving end today - even Ryo's choreography was criticised.
Koki appears beside Kame, slides a hand down his arm, and twists his wrist into view.
"Twenty-five to go, you two" he says, tapping the face of Kame's watch.
Kame's eyes remain on Jin.
There is very little privacy backstage. There never is at Countdown. Staff mill around, ready to fix last minute glitches. The halogen glow of the corridors does little to conceal the idols ducking in and out of each other's dressing rooms. The corridors themselves are surprisingly clear of costume racks and props, obstacle-free and ready for the stampede when the time comes to head to the stage. Fifteen minutes before their cue, Kame shepherds Jin into KAT-TUN's assigned room and kicks out stragglers.
"I got an offer." Jin says quietly so the others can't hear.
"Oh?" Kame's tone is cautious, and Jin realises how it might have sounded to Kame. It's a prickly subject between them. Jin has never loved acting as much as Kame, but Jin's ratings are higher than Kame's. Kame was competitive by nature; he does not like to be out-done, by Jin especially.
"You know what? I don't know why I brought that up," he backtracks. "Forget I said anything."
"Come on, Jin. You must have mentioned it for a reason. What is it? Have you see a script yet? A drama? Presenting? A movie? A play?"
"You said no." It isn't a question. "You're supposed to-"
Jin runs a hand through his hair, looks anywhere but at Kame. "I didn't say anything. My manager told me to think about it for a few days before I give an answer."
"You're right. It was a stupid time to bring this up. We're on in six minutes, Akanishi." Kame's smile slides into place before he turns to rally the others to the door in some semblance of order.
The long walk down the corridors of Tokyo Dome is punctuated with an odd mix of "good luck!" and "it'll be over in no time!".
"You look like shit, my friend," says Takki, the ever-practical and supportive senpai.
"God, Jin. Get a grip," orders Ryo like a true friend. "Take a minute out and take care of it. If it weren't such a cliché I'd take you behind a conveniently located costume rack and blow you myself."
By the time they approach the stage, Jin's mind is blank and his ears are filled with the roar of the fans. Koki nudges him forwards when he doesn't hear their cue and he's half a step behind Kame as they stride down the walkway to the main stage. The walk is instinct by now; Jin's body knows how to move with lazy confidence even when he doesn't feel it. He hears his voice and a song he knows inside out, and for a moment he doesn't remember if he's supposed to lip-synch or not; pretend, or not. A glance to his left turns out to be a mistake when he glimpses Kame's mouth, a thin, tense line - thinner than usual, even - stoically shut as their own voices announce their arrival.
Jin's breath comes in irregular gulps. It's the end of another year. This time last year, Jin's mouth had been curled into a lewd grin while he whispered into a girl's ear. Talking dirty made Jin blush; instead, he murmured the bear song into her skin. He doesn't remember her name, but he does remember the smell of her perfume, the stripe of make-up not rubbed in by her ear, and the way she twisted her fingers in the sleeve of the shirt tied around his waist.
Six months of relative normality versus eight and a half years of life as part of the Jimusho. It should not be this hard to get back into the swing of things. Jin can't remember if this is how it's supposed to go. Maybe it's the pressure of the live airing. Maybe it's something else.
Jin flinches when the fireworks explode to his left, shuts his eyes against the bright lights. He sees violet after-images imprinted on the insides of his eyelids. He tightens his grip on the microphone. It's turned off for the moment, but the weight is familiar. Someone squeezes his arm and doesn't let go.
Jin knows a work night when he's stuck in the middle of a work night from hell. For a start, it's night time. The Jimusho demands so many of his sunlit days Jin feels like it owes him his evenings. That's when he sees his friends. That's when he removes his makeup. That's when he gets to be himself. Having to be here on a night meant for celebrating with friends feels doubly unfair.
The Countdown Afterparty is the one and only time of year when Johnnys collect in one place - all but SMAP, of course - but it's the senpai's gig and will be for a few years yet. V6 and TOKIO are already on their way to making sure at least one half of KinKi Kids has no memory of yet another birthday - Jin suspects Koichi can't remember a birthday beyond the age of 16, though he would probably like to forget the annual mammoth hangovers on the second day of the year. There are two karaoke machines, one at each end of the room. One is not enough in a room full of idols. Kanjani8 have commandeered both and are busy making musical war. This year, Toma was invited with the intention of having him accept. It's made Yamapi unusually affectionate the entire night; he throws an arm around anyone who's near enough.
"Was it like this last year?" Jin asks Koki.
"If you mean did it feel like we were juniors again not allowed to go near a mic, yes. Yes it did." Koki hits Jin's shoulder. "This is where you find out we haven't left the kids' table behind yet."
In the coming year he will mark KAT-TUN's CD debut anniversary - the first he is here to mark with them. He will mark his 24th birthday. He will mark the 10th anniversary of the day he handed a '1' to Johnny-san. Takki once told him everything felt different after the day you realise you don't know what it's like to live a life outside of the the Jimusho. Jin doesn't recall much before the age of 5; Johnny's has already had the majority of his life. Maybe it's different for someone like Kame, Kame who had baseball before and Johnny's after, with a claustrophobic period of overlap in the middle. Jin wonders if Kame regrets his choices. Back then he had been forced to choose. Today, plucking 28 hours' work out of a 24 hour day when needs be, he might have been able to continue with both.
"Pi?" Jin hasn't left his chair since he got here, and Yamapi has been hovering nearby for most of the night. Jin plays with Yamapi's belt loop, curling his finger around it and passing his thumbnail over the stitches. "What do you see yourself doing next?"
"Hmm. After-Afterparty. Then home. Eat. Shower. Bed. Sleep," Yamapi counts on his fingers.
"No, I meant. I meant in the general scheme of things."
Yamapi rolls his shoulders in a lazy shrug. "I don't know. I expect we'll release a single in spring, plus concerts later on. There's talk of a drama in summer," he scratches his nose, "but they're still in negotiations. And I have to promote the movie. But I'll make time for your lazy ass." Jin hits him half-heartedly.
"What about. What about more general than that. After this. After Johnny's."
Jin doesn't even realise he's looking at Toma until Toma makes a face at him. Yamapi follows his line of sight, and his smile fades.
"Jin, are you feeling alright?"
"Fine. I'm fine."
"I think I made a mistake." Jin blurts out, the thought that's been on his mind all day.
"I don't think anyone noticed." Yamapi is smiling. He doesn't get it.
"I've had enough," says Jin quietly.
Yamapi takes hold of Jin's wrist and takes his glass away.
"I've seen you in worse states, Jin"
"I shouldn't have-"
Jin looks around the room, sees his colleagues, his friends, and can't complete the sentence. Whatever the perks of giving this all up would be, he would lose the his most important things in life, too. He could never leave, not really. Not when he considers what he'd lose.
Yamapi takes a long look at him. He takes ahold of Jin's shoulder, smiles a reassuring smile.
"It'll pass, Jin. It always does."
Jin can see the months stretched out and compressed in a series of dates and markers: single (two or three this year?); album; concerts (spring or summer?); DVDs; drama roles (which members, and how many seasons?). The year is barely hours old and already Jin feels its weight on his shoulders.
Jin tugs at Yamapi's belt loop again, and nods towards the people motioning for him to go over.
"I think they want you to go play."
"I think you should."
"Pi, promise me one thing."
"Don't leave without me, okay?"